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The Youth Vote: Apathy or Accessibility?

Despite a strong involvement in toppling Ben Ali's regime, polls show that youth interest in the elections is underwhelming.
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Tunis, Tunisia:

“I’ve got no confidence in these elections at all. I’m not going to vote. I live in the street, on the pavement. Look at my family. We are also Tunisians but look at our children on the streets!”

On a brisk autumnal day in the suburb of Siciliana in northern Tunis, twenty-six year old Neila Herela raced over, begging for us to see where she lived. Her home was a few pieces of carpet fixed over some poles on a slip of pavement beside some empty houses formerly owned by the Trabelsi family. A small fire flickered in the breeze, all the family of twenty six had to keep them warm.

“I’ve got a technical advanced diploma, but I can’t find work. What can I do?” she says tearfully, clutching her Arabic certificate for higher qualifications in publicity and marketing. “I haven’t even got an address to give to potential employers”.

Neila had seen the smart convoy of cars passing by, belonging to businessman Fouad Bouslama who’s campaigning as a candidate for the Tunisia for Tomorrow party. It’s the first time any politician has been down this street she says.

Neila’s story shows that the problem of youth unemployment has not gone away in Tunisia. Twenty-six year old Mohammed Bouazizi became the symbol of the Jasmine Revolution when he set himself on fire when police harassed him as he was trying to sell his produce in the southern town of Sidi Bouzid.

Unemployment Figures

Local government figures for Sidi Bouzid put the unemployment rate for young people with a diploma at 25% for young men, and 44.7% for young women.

According to the Tunisian Workers Communist party (PCOT), national youth unemployment has actually increased since the revolution, from around 500,000 (out of a population of 10.5 million) to about 700,000 today – around 100,000 of those are young people with a diploma.

“Youth unemployment is a structural problem which requires a complete overhaul of our economy” says Sophien Ben Hamidi from the UGTT union (Tunisian General Union of Labour). “It’s not a technical problem. We need to make sure that young people’s qualifications match what prospective employers are looking for”.

Information not interest

So do young people feel that the electoral process is working in their favour? Although a study by Al Maghreb claims that more than 25% of young people said they are not interested in politics, in the bars and cafes of downtown Tunis, it’s not hard to find articulate and passionate educated young Tunisians.

“Unemployment is a very big problem facing us, it’s the reason we had the revolution” says Syrene Benhaj, who works in a call centre part time while studying English. “Of course I’m going to vote. This is very important. But I can’t tell you who I will vote for” she said, laughing as she finished her latte.

On the streets, anecdotal evidence suggests that there is no shortage of interest in the elections, and most young people I spoke to said they intended to vote. On social media sites such as facebook and twitter, which played such a vital role in the Dignity Revolution protests, the debate seems focused on the popular moderate islamist Al-Nahda party and the role of religion in the new constitution.

However some people complain that campaigning has been slow, and in fact there have been few large-scale rallies in the centre of town. Others say they’re confused about what the voting is about, and bewildered by the 116 parties and 11,000 candidates to choose from. The fact is Tunisians are still learning how to run a political campaign.

“It’s confusing for people who have no experience of the democratic process” says young Tunisian journalist Nozha Ben Mohammed.

Engaging the youth

But there are encouraging signs that some of the main parties understand the importance of engaging young people, and have strategies for getting them interested.

“Young people are suffering in our society, and all the political parties need to help” says Latifa Habeishi who’s standing for Al-Nahda party in the poorer southern Tunis suburb of Manouba. “Al-Nahda will create 580,000 new jobs by fighting against corruption and encouraging foreign investors to come here. But we need the young people to vote for us first!”

According to Maria Espinosa, Deputy Chief Observer of the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) which was invited by the interim Tunisian government, the process so far has been ‘very transparent’. But she says it’s true that the political parties have failed somewhat to get their messages across to everyone.

The only real measure of the success of this new political project will be the turn-out on Sunday. Although there are concerns that only 4.1 million voters out of a potential 7 million have registered, those who have not registered should still be able to vote on Sunday with their identity card. 

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