Friday, 22 May 2015

Good elections in bad times: The Tunisian case

Alessandro Nai, May 21, 2015

The Lisbon Forum met in Tunis 28-29 April 2015 to discuss “Financing electoral campaigns: a challenge for the electoral processes in the countries of the Southern Mediterranean.” The event sought to understand the role of money in electoral politics in order to formulate concrete proposals which met the requirements of a democratic, transparent and equal electoral process.

Tunisia, cradle of the Arab Uprisings, is facing a hard time. Even though its economy seems on the way to full recovery and international investors and funds seem rather supportive, the country is still facing some major social challenges. Tunisia is often described a particularly fertile breeding ground for ISIS fighters, and by some estimates Tunisian fighters in Syria and Iraq greatly outnumber those of other countries and regions. Beyond the drama of the event itself, the deadly attack of the Bardo Museum in Tunis on March 18th revived the fear of a decline in tourism-related incomes, extremely important for the country's economy. Especially in a context where tourism was slowly recovering from the turmoil of the Arab Spring, the Bardo attacks will undoubtedly have severe repercussions for the fragile economy. Even if the Tunisian society is undoubtedly more tolerant and avant-garde than some of its neighbours about women rights, gender-related violence is still high in the country, and over the last four years since the 2011 revolution unrests and public outburst of violence have been rather common.

Against this background, the country has recently experienced one of the most significant social and political transformations of the decade, following a series of substantial political reforms. These led to the ratification of the 2014 Tunisian Constitution. The legislative elections on October 26th 2014 and the presidential election on November 23rd and December 21st 2014 were important tests for the transition from autocracy, and they were closely scrutinized by the actors of the political, civil and academic society.

Citizens were somewhat suspicious about the Tunisian electoral process in the months prior to the October-December contests. This can be illustrated by Tunisian data from the sixth wave of the World Value Surveys, based on a representative sample of 1,205 Tunisian respondents surveyed in 2013 (margin of error +/- 2.74%). The results show that a clear majority of Tunisians estimates that violence is a threat at the polls, that only about half of the respondents thought that votes in elections are counted fairly and that voters are offered a genuine choice (Table 1). At the same time, about the majority of respondents think that election officials are fair, and that journalists provide fair coverage of elections.

Table 1

How often in country’s elections…
Fairly or very often
Not or not at all often
Voters are threatened with violence at the polls
Opposition candidates are prevented from running
Voters are not offered a genuine choice in the elections
Votes are not counted fairly
Journalists do not provide fair coverage of elections
Voters are bribed
Rich people buy elections
Election officials are not fair
TV news favours the governing party
Source: World Value Surveys, 6th wave (2010-2014), N=1205 (original wording reversed for some items to ensure comparability)

This relative distrust comes as no surprise given the tormented recent history of Tunisian democracy.

What is more surprising, perhaps, is that expert indicators measuring the quality of the 2014 elections show relatively positive evaluations. As presented in the Electoral Integrity Project 2014 Year In Elections Report, experts in the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity index (PEI) rated the recent Tunisian elections quite favourably: in comparison with the 127 elections surveyed since June 2012, the Tunisian elections rank at respectively the 25th (presidential election, second run) and 34th position (legislative election) from the top. The overall quality of electoral procedures and laws, the role of EMBs, vote counting and party and candidate registration flirts with the one of well-established democracies such as Norway, Sweden and Germany. Only the financing of electoral campaigns was rated more poorly (57 on a 0-100 scale for both elections).

To provide a more grounded comparison, recent elections in Algeria (presidential election, April 2014) and Egypt (presidential election, May 2014), both countries who share with Tunisia a recent past of political and social turmoil, rank respectively 103rd and 115th on the PEI data. Within this context, « Tunisia stands out as a beacon of hope for democracy » (EIP, The Year in Elections 2014, p. 21).

The Tunisian case illustrates some of the factors that can enforce (or depress) electoral integrity. Data gathered within the Electoral Integrity Project allow for cross-sectional comparison between countries, and they are able to show that some strong dynamics are at play. For instance (see Figure 1 below), there is a strong correlation between electoral integrity (as measures via the PEI index) and the stock of democracy that, roughly, measures the « length of time [a country…] has been democratic from 1972 to 2010 » (EIP, The Year in Elections 2014, p. 13).

This being the case, overall patterns do not prevent the existence of outlier cases, and the most recent Tunisian elections clearly fall into this situation. Having roughly the same historical stock of democracy as Egypt and Algeria, Tunisia reaches a score of electoral integrity that goes beyond such patterns, one of the only real outliers among the 107 countries surveyed. The Tunisian case stands out as an exception even more when compared with countries having a stronger democratic traditions but having performed more poorly in the recent elections in terms of integrity such as, to name just the most prominent example, United States.

Participants at the event

The North-South Centre, financed by the European Union and implemented by the Council of Europe, organized the meeting in Tunis, following an official invitation from the Tunisian authorities.

The Electoral Integrity Project provided the keynote speech opening the meeting. Officially representing the EIP, Dr. Alessandro Nai gave a speech on the definition, components and implications of electoral integrity. The talk introduced the audience to the innovative approach of the EIP to measure electoral integrity, and provided a focus on the recent Tunisian elections.

The participation at the Forum was an excellent opportunity for the EIP to strengthen its ties with the policy stakeholders involved in electoral monitoring and engineering. Participants, coming from the civil and political society, showed unmasked eagerness to know more about the project, the proposed comparative measure of electoral integrity, and the prescriptive work that awaits the EIP in the upcoming months. The keynote speech was, furthermore, widely covered in the national press in Tunisia, and beyond.

Other participants at the initial introductory sessions were Mohamed EZZINE CHLEYFA (Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of the Tunisian Republic), Jean-Marie HEYDT (President of the Executive Committee of the North-South Centre of the Council of Europe), and Lora BORISSOVA (Democracy and Election observation, European External Action Service (EEAS), European Union). Later sessions saw the participation of, among many others, of Richard GHEVONTIAN (Member of the Venice Commission, Aix-Marseille University, France), Andreas GROSS (Member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Head of the PACE delegation for the observation of 2014 legislative elections in Tunisia, former Chair of the Council of democratic elections - Venice Commission), Lamiaa KALAWI (Regional Coordinator – Middle East and North Africa Region, Transparency International), Dr. Mohammad AL-MASALHAH (Commissioner, Independent Election Commission, Amman – Jordan), Isabel MENCHON LOPEZ (Focal point for Human Rights defenders & for Election Observation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Spain), and Dr Quentin REED (Anti-corruption/ Governance Consultant).

Whether the experience of Tunisia can be consolidated and deepened further in subsequent contests, and whether the lessons spread to other fragile and poorer neighbouring states in the region, remains to be seen in these turbulent times. The new Tunisian government seems eager to prove to the world, and especially its neighbours, that the country is on the right path. The meeting of the newly elected President, Mr. Essebsi, with representatives of the US government is Washington on May 21st testifies of its good will to reinforce strategic partnerships with important allies, against the backdrop of tense relationships with some of its neighbours. Only time will tell if the 2014 elections were a clear turning point in Tunisian political and social history.

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