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Tunisians Vote for Change

  • In the fall of 2019, Tunisian citizens voted in three different elections in less than a month.

  • In the first election, they had a choice of 26 presidential candidates, and the top two vote-getters moved on to a runoff.

  • The Carter Center deployed more than 90 election observers to the three elections.

  • The observers recorded their findings using ELMO, a mobile data collection and reporting system developed by the Center that makes it possible for observers to immediately send reports to headquarters.

  • Between the presidential election and runoff, citizens voted for members of parliament.

  • These were just the second genuinely democratic presidential and parliamentary elections since the country won its independence from France in the 1950s.

  • As in many countries, voters must dip their fingers in indelible ink, which prevents people from voting twice.

  • To make them feel like part of the process, children can have their fingers inked as well.

  • Inked fingers are a source of pride, and many people take selfies outside their polling stations.

Tunisians went to the polls three times in just four weeks this fall to elect a new president and parliament.

They chose Kaïs Saïed, a retired constitutional law professor with no political experience, as their new president and selected a diverse group of political parties and independents to represent them in parliament.

“The results reflect Tunisians’ frustration with the slow pace of reform since the 2011 revolution that launched the Arab Spring,” said Sarah Johnson, an associate director in the Carter Center’s Democracy Program. “The continued decline in the economy, the rising cost of living, and the inability of established political parties to enact reforms spurred many voters to opt for political outsiders who they hope will achieve the goals of the revolution.”

The Carter Center deployed a team of more than 90 observers for each of the elections. The core team arrived in May, followed by 16 long-term observers in July. Three international figures shared delegation leadership duties: Salam Fayyad, a former Palestinian prime minister; Tana de Zulueta, a former member of the Italian parliament; and Karen AbuZayd, a senior U.N. official and a commissioner on the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.

The first election – a presidential contest featuring 26 candidates – took place on Sept. 15, parliamentary elections fell on Oct. 6, and the presidential runoff occurred on Oct. 13.

The elections weren’t supposed to be held so close together, but President Beji Caïd Essebsi died in office on July 25, and the constitution requires that a new president take office within 90 days of the swearing-in of an interim president.

“Essebsi’s death could have provoked a constitutional crisis, but parliament moved quickly to ensure a peaceful and orderly transition of power,” said David Carroll, director of the Carter Center’s Democracy Program. “And then the election commission pulled off three well-organized elections in a short time span. All of that is a credit to Tunisia’s young democracy.”

The percentage of registered voters who participated in the first two elections was significantly lower than in 2014, likely because of Tunisians’ disillusionment with current politics. And though parliament has more power than the president, the presidential race overshadowed all.

The main story involved the second-place presidential candidate, Nabil Karoui, a co-owner of Tunisia’s largest private TV station, who was detained on corruption charges just before the start of the campaign. The timing of his detention – combined with parliament’s attempt in June to pass a law that would have effectively barred him from running – led many to believe it was politically motivated.

“The charges against Karoui date back to 2016, but he wasn’t detained until August 2019,” said Carroll. “That timing raised legitimate concerns about the equitable treatment of candidates, which is required by Tunisian law. While he advanced to the second round, he was not released until four days before the runoff. In the final poll, he won just 27 percent of the vote.”

The Carter Center has had a presence in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution and maintains a field office in Tunis that carries out various democracy-strengthening projects, often partnering with local organizations.

“Tunisia has made significant progress in the last eight years,” said Johnson. “Yes, there are problems – real problems – and the people have a right to feel frustrated with the pace of change. It will take time to build a strong democracy, but the trajectory is promising.”

Some Tunisians are excited about their country’s future.

“Our democracy is in its genesis, its very first phase,” said Maha Rohmdani, a French professor, as she stood outside her polling station on election day. “It is important to vote to be able to change things, to reconstruct and rebuild. People before the revolution did not have the right to speak up. Now the voice of the people can be heard and can decide the fate of the country.”

Learn more about the Center's Democracy Program »

View Carter Center election reports for Tunisia »