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Democracy Takes Root in Tunisia

On Sunday, Nov. 23, Tunisians will do something they've never done before: go to the polls to elect the president of their choice in a genuine democratic election.

And as citizens choose from among 27 candidates, a Carter Center team of more than 80 will be on hand to observe the process and report on its fairness.

"It's exciting," said Sarah Johnson, an associate director in the Center's Democracy Program who manages its efforts in Tunisia. "It's the first time the people are directly electing a president who will be accountable to them."

A potential voter reads political posters in Tunisia's capital city, Tunis, in advance of upcoming elections. (All photos: The Carter Center)

Technically, Tunisians have voted for a president before - "choosing" Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who came to power in a 1987 coup and ruled for nearly 24 years, winning elections with implausibly high percentages of votes. But in December 2010, 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest harassment by public officials. His action inspired a wave of demonstrations that spread beyond Tunisia's borders, as citizens revolted against undemocratic regimes in what came to be known as the Arab Spring.

Ben Ali fled the country in January 2011. In October of that year, Tunisians elected a National Constituent Assembly. The assembly chose a president from among its members and spent the next two-plus years drafting a new constitution.

A Beacon of Hope
Throughout this transition, The Carter Center has operated an office in the capital city of Tunis, where technical experts and observers analyzed elections and the constitutional drafting process, offering recommendations to help bring them into alignment with Tunisia's laws and international obligations. In October, a group of 65 Center observers monitored the first legislative elections since the adoption of the constitution, keeping an eye on everything from voter registration to campaign rules to ballot preparation, in addition to actual vote casting and tabulation.

"Legislative elections went really well," said Johnson. "They were worried in the lead-up to the vote that there might be acts of violence or other instability within the country, but it all went smoothly. The polling workers were well trained, and the day went by without incident. It was very calm, orderly, and transparent."

These Tunisian women voted in the October legislative elections, as evidenced by their stained fingers. Purple, indelible ink is used at polling stations as a safeguard to prevent double voting.

The elections garnered praise not just from The Carter Center but from leaders around the world, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who called Tunisia "a beacon of hope, not only to the Tunisian people, but to the region and the world."

Tunisia's success is all the more impressive in light of what has happened in other Arab Spring countries.

Egypt, Yemen, and Libya also ousted dictators in 2011. But Egypt's military staged a coup in 2013 and replaced the democratically elected president with one of its own, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Though a subsequent election confirmed his position, many questioned its validity, and, in August, The Carter Center closed its Egypt office, saying the environment wasn't conducive to genuine democratic elections. Meanwhile, democratic efforts in Libya and Yemen have been hamstrung by frequent outbreaks of violence.

By contrast, said Johnson, "Tunisian politicians and leaders have worked hard to achieve compromise and consensus."

Forging a New Path
That doesn't mean that the country's path has been easy or that its future is secure.

"Tunisia has experienced periods of intense political crisis since the revolution," said Johnson. "Two prominent politicians were assassinated, and there are growing security threats. Not all citizens agree on the country's direction, and there are frequent demonstrations and strikes because of its difficult economic condition and unemployment rate."

There are also significant differences between secularists and Islamists, and more than 2,400 young Tunisians have left home to fight alongside ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

In something of a surprise, the secularist Nidaa Tounes party won more seats in October's elections than did Ennahda, a party of moderate Islamists who dominated the constituent assembly.

"The other big surprise," said Johnson, "is that there were more women elected than had served in the assembly; 68 of the 217 are women, which is significant."

There is also a woman among the presidential candidates, a judge running as an independent. She's not the frontrunner - that's Beji Caid Essebsi, the 87-year-old head of the Nidaa Tounes party, who served as minister of foreign affairs under Ben Ali.

Whoever wins will share power with a prime minister, who will be chosen by Nidaa Tounes because it won the most seats in the legislative elections. The president will handle foreign policy and national security, and the prime minister will oversee the government and most day-to-day operations.

Though the pair will face challenges, there is much cause for hope.

"The Tunisian people have made great positive strides," Johnson said. "And with this election, they are bringing a close to the interim period and empowering their new democratically elected leaders to address problems."


See Tunisia election photos | Carter Center Blog

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Fact Box

  • January 2011
    Long-serving ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali ousted
  • October 2011
    Assembly elected to draw up a new constitution
  • January 2014
    New constitution passed
  • October 2014
    Parliamentary elections held
  • Nov. 23, 2014
    Presidential elections scheduled

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