Monday, May 4, 2015

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Tunisia: Campaigning Without Policies

The role of religion in the state and other contentious issues have largely been eschewed on the campaign trail.
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Tunis, Tunisia:

For many Tunisians preparing to vote this Sunday, the death of Gaddafi could not have come at a more significant time. 

There are thousands of Libyans here – either those who’ve fled as refugees or those who’ve come to seek medical care for injuries sustained in the fighting.

“Libyans are our brothers, we are together. Nothing can separate us – not Ben Ali, not Gaddafi!” shouts Nasser, a young Tunisian, waving a Libyan flag as he runs alongside the convoy of vehicles carrying Libyan ex-fighters, which is making slow and noisy progress down the wide boulevard Mohammed V in central Tunis.

Watching quietly from the sidelines is Ali, a Libyan from Misrata.“I’m happy, this is a great day” he says. “We’ve been following things here in Tunisia, and I really believe that after the death of Gaddafi we could even think about organising our own elections”.

Electoral efforts

Today is the last day of campaigning in the run-up to the vote for a Tunisia’s new constitutional assembly. The 217-seat body will have a one year mandate to write a new constitution, and when it’s approved it’s hoped a permanent government can be elected.

Analysts here believe the electoral commission, ISIE (High Independent Body for the Elections) has worked hard to organise the country’s first ever free vote.

“It was a real challenge because they decided for obvious political reasons to organise the elections outside the old established structures”, says Michael Gahler, head of the EU observer mission, here at the invitation of the Tunisian government. “As far as we see on the national level, the preparations are in place for a free and fair election”.

The EU says the process so far has been transparent and that measures such as using indelible ink, and counting the votes immediately in individual constituencies should mean there is little chance of fraud taking place.

Vague campaigns

But the process has not pleased everyone. Although voters have a choice of one hundred and sixteen parties and independent candidates to choose from, it looks likely that the moderate Islamic party Al-Nahda, and the left-wing secular Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) will be the biggest winners on Sunday.

Neither of these parties have been able to clearly articulate to voters what they want from the new constitution says Fathi Warda, a lecturer in English at the university of Tunis who’s recently returned after many years abroad.

“I don’t think it’s been a good campaign. I don’t think they tackled the issue head on” he says.

“The real debate will be about whether we choose to include more religious elements in our constitution, or whether we have a separation of state and religion. Instead the campaign was just about politicians embellishing their image and ridiculing other parties”.

With its longer political experience (being repressed by Ben Ali in the 1980s and 90s), al-Nahda itself understands the sensitivity of these issues. It’s been at pains to insist that it does not want a constitution based on sharia law, and that it will uphold women’s hard-won rights.

The PDP says the Tunisian people should be allowed to choose to accept a new constitution in a referendum next year. 

“It’s up to us politicians to talk about who we are and what makes us Tunisian – freedom, gender equality, equal opportunities at work” says Moncef Cheikh Rouhou, a candidate for the PDP in Tunis. “We are definitely not against religion; we don’t understand how in other counties religion is a divisive thing. We should take into consideration what most Tunisians feel, and I think they feel that we are an Arab nation with a Muslim religion. It doesn’t mean that religion is going to rule the law”.

Engaging the youth vote

Another big question is how well the political establishment – the ISIE and the parties – have reached out to the all-important young voters, whose protests against economic injustice and unemployment back in December were the spark that set off the Jasmine Revolution.

Outside the job centre in the Lafayette quartier, many young people are engaged and passionate.

“Of course I’m going to vote. I’ve already chosen a party” says 26 year old Houda Senene, who wants to teach. “I think it’s going to be ok. I think Tunisians are conscious of what they have to do to save the future of my country”.

“I’m an optimist for now, we need to have a clear constitution for the future of Tunisia” says Haikal Arbi, who is looking for accountancy work.

4.1 million voters out of a potential of around  7 million have registered, but measures have been put in place to allow people to vote with their identity cards. Exit polls should give an indication how many young people have turned out.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that a lot of young people do intend to vote - even if for some, the excitement of going to the polls for the first time may obscure the importance of what happens afterwards. 

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