Rep. Tom Petri Writes about his Experience as an IRI Election Observer in Tunisia

Tunisia lays groundwork for democracy
Journal Sentinel
By Rep. Tom Petri

I recently returned from the emerging democracy of Tunisia, a country that has made impressive strides toward free elections and that has set the groundwork for progress with its recent parliamentary elections.

Tunisia’s successful elections on Oct. 26 should not be understated in the importance they have for the region. For a country situated between Libya and Algeria — two countries struggling with true democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring — Tunisia separates itself from its neighbors through the resilience, organization and the perseverance of its people. While many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including nearby Egypt, struggle with free elections and stable government, Tunisia has proven to be a regional model for success.

But the road to free elections has been rocky. Let’s not forget that Tunisia was where the Arab Spring first began. In late 2010, a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in protest of the harsh treatment and goods confiscation he faced at the hands of corrupt police. His death the following January set in motion the riots and protests that swept the region.

Tunisians took to the streets, and the ensuing protests caused President Ben Ali and his family to flee to Saudi Arabia after more than two decades in power. Ben Ali had always received over 90% of the vote, and the Tunisians I spoke to said there was never any question about what the results of the election would be.

So when the parliamentary elections were held last month, it was only the second time in more than a generation that Tunisians truly had the power to choose their own elected representatives. Especially for young Tunisians, this was a milestone.

As an election observer with the nonpartisan International Republican Institute — headed by former Wisconsin Congressman and U.S. Ambassador Mark Green — I was able to see firsthand the impressive structure Tunisians have put in place to ensure individual voices are heard loud and clear.

Perhaps what most impressed me was the incredible organization and transparency of the voting process. Watching in the front of the room as Tunisians presented their ballots, I observed as election volunteers picked each ballot out of the box and recorded the party that received the vote on a board. Voter registration lists were even posted outdoors in the town square listing where each person should vote.

After democratic failures in countries such as Egypt, where the military still holds tremendous power, I am often asked about the role of the military in Tunisia’s election process. The answer is that the army was present, but only insomuch as to maintain order and help with organization.

In Tunisia, the desire for change is extraordinarily powerful and the result of that grassroots effort was a remarkably organized and effective voter registration drive and election.

The party officials, poll workers and voters I spoke to, who had known nothing but repression in their lives, were inspiring. They knew how important these elections were for Tunisia and that it was a moment to truly make a difference in the future of their country. So they wanted to be a part of it.

Skeptics may point to other countries in the region that have tried, and failed, to sustain free elections and stable government. This is true — and all the more reason to look to Tunisia for a brighter future. In my opinion, it will not be, as some have suggested, a matter of luck that Tunisia succeeds where others fail. There are dozens of candidates in the upcoming presidential elections, and turnout in the parliamentary elections last month was close to 60%. This shows a high level of interest and concern for setting the country on the right path.

The first task of the new parliament is to establish a framework for governance at the provincial and local level. Though there are two main parties, neither gained enough seats to govern by majority, and there were over 100 political parties represented in the election. Therefore, party leaders also almost certainly will be looking to form a coalition government in the coming weeks. Surely, these are no small tasks.

Tunisia still has significant challenges ahead, including an upcoming presidential election and attempting to increase the number of young people who come out to vote. But the country is one of great promise and opportunity, not only for the people of Tunisia but also for a region that has struggled with democracy and intolerance of minority views.

U.S. Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) represents the 6th Congressional District.

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