BEIRUT

Middle East

Tensions breed pessimism about Tunisia polls

Tunisians pause at candidate posters ahead of elections.

TUNIS: The posterchild of the “Arab Spring,” Tunisia is preparing for highly anticipated democratic elections, but a lack of enthusiasm among young voters and tensions between Islamist and secular partisans have many feeling pessimistic.

Fiercely proud of their revolution and eager for a democratic voice, many Tunisians lament the widespread lack of confidence in the country’s political class.

“A vast number of Tunisians, particularly the youth, have not seen concrete changes or proposals, so they question the future,” said Mohammad Mzeim, 32, a spokesman for the Communist Workers’ Party of Tunisia (PCOT) a popular party among the country’s many young voters.

Mzeim spoke from PCOT’s bustling third-story office, packed with supporters and stacks of campaign literature, off the Place de la Republique in the capital, Tunis.

“The real problem is that most people don’t know who they want to vote for. There are more than 100 political parties, 1,500 electoral lists,” he added. “The people have the right to vote but they cannot see clearly.”

Following the ouster of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14, there was an explosion of political activity and optimism in Tunisia.

The elections for a 218-member Constituent Assembly charged with drafting a new constitution is scheduled for Oct. 23.

Tunisians will have the choice among 81 of the 111 registered parties and 1,541 lists, many independent, in 33 constituencies.

This breadth of choice, combined with a lack of trust in government after years of autocratic rule, has left many Tunisians undecided. Polls suggest that most Tunisians are likely to vote but nearly half do not know who for.

“There are two types – those who are extremely politically active, and those who discard their liberty because they haven’t seen change,” said a high-ranking member of Ettakatol, one of left-leaning parties expected to win representation in the Constituent Assembly.

The vast choice has not helped matters, he added.

Further complicating the campaign season has been a series of decisions by the Independent High Authority for the Elections (ISIE), the body charged with overseeing the elections. Following concerns about foreign financing of parties, ISIE banned public advertising last month, limiting the ability of parties to reach voters.

ISIE has also banned foreign journalists from interviewing candidates, a decision that most believe was aimed at stemming the influence of Al-Jazeera Arabic and France 24, the country’s most popular television channels.

Kamel Jendoubi, the head of ISIE, assured reporters this month that everything was under control.

“The elections should take place under favorable conditions, but we are ready for any eventuality,” he said.

Recent events, however, have highlighted tensions before the vote. In the coastal city of Sousse demonstrators gathered last Saturday to protest the education ministry’s decision to ban students from wearing the niqab.

The following day protesters marched on the offices of the Nessma television station in Tunis, for airing the French-Iranian film “Persepolis,”which included an animated depiction of God. The initial protest was followed by clashes with police in Tunis’ Ras Ettabia neighborhood.

The weekend’s unrest underscored what is considered to be the election’s principal narrative: the battle between Islamists, namely the An-Nahda (Renaissance) movement, and the center-left secular parties who, for the most part, seek to uphold the country’s tradition of secularism.

Opinion polls have consistently shown Nahda to be the front-runner ahead of the elections. Led by the 70-year-old Rachid Ghannouchi, who spent years in exile in London under the Ben Ali regime, Nahda is well financed and has an extensive network across Tunisia.

“We are against all forms of violence,” Nourdine Bhiri, a member of Nahda’s executive committee, told The Daily Star. But by airing Persepolis, he said, Nessma had “violated the fundamental right of all believers. The rights of citizens who are believers must be respected.”

Some feel that increased religious-based polarization will benefit Nahda. Moutaa Amin Nelwaer, a communications office the Socialist Left Party (a member of the Democratic Modernist Bloc), said that some feel after the secular period of Ben Ali, Islamism should be tried.

“They think: We had laicitè under Ben Ali, now is the time to support Islamism,” he said.

While Nahda is expected to win a sizeable share in the Constituent Assembly the elections, which will be closed-list proportional, could see the emergence of a larger alliance of center-left parties.

The Progressive Democratic Party, the largest opposition party during the Ben Ali era, Ettakatol, the technocratic Afek Tunis, and the Congress for the Republic, the party of respected activist, Moncef Marzouki, along with a collection of others, are expected to do well.

When asked to speculate on the odds of victory for his party, Nahda’s Bhiri, spoke instead about a democratic victory for the country: “Nahda is a Tunisian party among many Tunisian parties. Above all, it’s the Tunisians that will win.”

But he emphasized the importance of the youth vote, noting that the issues of the country, like high unemployment, affect them most.

Outside of the capital’s many political offices, youth discontent is evident. It can be heard on the street and in the universities.

At a tram stop outside the sprawling, white-washed Manouba University campus in Tunis, Trabelsi Hajer, a 20-year-old English student and Nahda supporter, said many of her friends are pessimistic.

“They are not confident. They think that nothing will change and they won’t vote. I have friends who won’t vote. It affects the freedom of the whole country,” she said.

More than a hundred students at Tunis University’s Human and Social Sciences Faculty staged an apolitical walkout for better conditions at the university Tuesday.

Wearing red arm bands, students marched down the university’s halls, banging on classrooms doors chanting: “Public education, democratic education, national culture” and “We will die but we will take the injustice from our land.”

Despite the widespread hesitancy and indecision, Tunisians have not lost sight of the symbolic importance of the upcoming elections, particularly as sectarian tensions flare in Egypt and fighting continues in Libya.

Many residents of Tunis, a city where concertina wire and armored personnel carriers still guard popular squares, told The Daily Star that they feel a responsibility to vote, regardless of whether they support a certain party.

“It’s a question of conscience,” said Elhamad Ismail, 26, a web designer and Ettakatol supporter. “The youth who are conscientious are very involved in the election. Those who are not, are not.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 15, 2011, on page 9.

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