A family of voters on election day in Tunis, Tunisia. Photo: Natasha Turak
“To anyone pronouncing the end of democracy in this region, I strongly suggest they visit Tunisia.” These were the opening words of Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, at a press conference for the international election observer missions that came to the country to monitor the voting process.
Last weekend, the country where the Arab Spring began proved that democracy is possible in a region all too well known for conflict and corruption. Three years after ousting longtime dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in a popular revolution triggered by the self-immolation of an impoverished street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi, Tunisia’s official democratic transition is close to completion–but not without huge obstacles along the way. Since 2011, the country’s economy has plummeted, terrorism and crime rates have gone up, and the government has suffered frequent deadlock. But since the adoption of a new Constitution in January of this year, widely praised by international governments and human rights groups for its commitment to equal rights and the rule of law, hope for a stable and strong Tunisia has largely been restored. The 2014 legislative election, the country’s second free election in its history, was yet another milestone in its revolutionary journey. And I was there to witness it.
I have been living in Tunisia for ten months now, and began working as a journalist for Tunisia Live, the country’s only English-language news source, two months ago. The work, in addition to being Euphrates’ publications director, has given me the most amazing opportunity to discover Tunisia politically and culturally, most recently as I visited polling stations and neighborhoods in different parts of the capital Tunis.
On the morning of election day, the streets were filled with a quiet anticipation. Flags adorned the palm-tree lined boulevards and I could hear the word intikhabet (Arabic for ‘elections’) everywhere I went. I visited polling stations in upscale suburbs where voters spoke French, wore tank tops, and donned designer bags, and I visited poorer neighborhoods where dilapidated schools housed polling stations, residents spoke only a local dialect of Arabic, and pockets of the community were said to be supporters of ISIS. Regardless of the territory, everyone I spoke to in the polling stations seemed eager and excited to vote. “This is our chance to make our voice heard, and achieve what we want as citizens, without fear,” Asma, a 26 year old master’s student, told me.
You can check out some of my photos from the historic day here!
Tunisia Votes: IN PICTURES
Anticipating potential terrorist attacks aimed at derailing the democratic transition process, Tunisia’s government mobilized 100,000 security forces including the army, police, and national guard, all of which carried out their jobs in a very calm and professional manner. Going in as a journalist, I was never denied access or forbidden to take a picture–another very positive sign.
After polls closed I spent the evening at the National Election Press Center to await results. The next several days moved so quickly, with interviews, stories, press conferences, and new vote counts coming in constantly. It was exausting, but so exciting. In the end, the result came as a surprise to everyone–the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, who won the 2011 post-revolution elections with a sweeping majority, came in second after Nidaa Tounes, the main secular opposition party. Both parties reacted to the news with grace and professionalism, expressing their gratitude toward and faith in Tunisia and its democratic trajectory. Rached Ghannouchi, head of Ennahdha, told a crowd of supporters following the results’ release, “Today we are celebrating freedom, and Tunisia’s successful democracy. Tunisia is dearer to us than power and is dearer to us than Ennahdha itself.”
Politicians and voters alike expressed a willingness to work together, and praise was given especially to the civil society groups and independent media that have been so vital in ensuring transparency and fairness. Mehdi, a young business consultant from Tunis, told me this was “a huge win for progressives in Tunisia,” and that his confidence for the country’s future lay “not in the politicians themselves, but in Tunisia’s civil society and the media,” which, he said, were the true indicators of democracy. Mohamed, an English teacher, stressed that “the winning party urgently needs to reform the government institutions, secure the country, lower inflation and unemployment and get confidence back to foreign investors.” Nidaa, the winning party, he told me, “is well capable of achieving those goals and taking Tunisia to the next level.”
Independent international observer groups noted sporadic irregularities during the weekend’s election process, but expressed broad positive feedback overall, with 92% of all polling stations recorded as fully compliant with legal regulations. The National Democratic Institute hailed it as an “extraordinary accomplishment”, and the International Republican Institute described it as potentially representing “the most successful democratic transition in the Arab world.” IRI North Africa Director Scott Mastic congratulated Tunisians on carrying out a process that was “credible, transparent, and genuinely competitive, especially during difficult times and under threats of violence.” An American representative from the Carter Center remarked that for its second free elections ever, Tunisia’s performance was “absolutely astonishing.”
Sunday’s vote represents the second free elections in Tunisia’s history. It follows the ratification of the new Constitution in January of this year, widely praised by international leaders and human rights groups for its commitment to equal rights and the rule of law. The culmination of the 2014 election season marks the completion of Tunisia’s official transition to democracy, which started with the Arab Spring and will end with the country’s presidential election, to be held on November 23.
While many challenges remain, and a successful election is by no means the end of the road, this represent an incredibly important milestone. I can say from personal experience that the people of Tunisia are resilient, inspiring, and hopeful, and I for one am fully confident that they will only go up from here.
Natasha Turak, Euphrates Publications Director
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