Wall Street Journal Talks to IRI’s Tom Garrett About Tunisia’s Elections

Tunisia Vote Stands as Test for the Region
The Wall Street Journal
By Charles Levinson

TUNIS, Tunisia — The first nation to topple its leader in this year’s Arab Spring uprisings votes Sunday for an assembly to draft a new constitution, an exercise that will provide an early test of democracy prospects in the region.

In an election that could set the bar as the Middle East’s freest and most open ever, Tunisians will elect a 218-seat constitutional assembly, which will appoint an interim government and have one year to rewrite the constitution. Its impact may only be enhanced by the death this week of Moammar Gadhafi, the third and longest-running autocrat to be brought down by the protests that began 10 months ago in Tunisia.

Democracy activists across the region hope that a successful vote here could galvanize pro-democracy movements that have flagged amid violent regime crackdowns, as in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, and by a pushback by old-guard counterrevolutionary forces, as in Egypt.

Among the countries that have overthrown leaders, Tunisia presents the most fertile seedbed for democracy, say analysts: It has a relatively large and educated middle class. Women enjoy a measure of equality unmatched in the Arab world. The country has a tradition of civil rule both before and after January’s revolution. With a relatively homogenous population of 10 million, the country also suffers from few ethnic and sectarian rifts.

The question is the degree to which Tunisia’s vote will apply to the likes of Egypt, Libya, Yemen or Syria, where uprisings have been bloodier and rife with internal tribal, sectarian or regional tensions. Tunisia may stand as an aspirational example, analysts say—or as a bar set too high.

“People start to look and say, ‘See, they have democracy—why can’t I?’ Or they say, ‘That looks chaotic—I don’t want that,’ ” according to Thomas Garrett, a vice president with the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-based democracy-promotion body that will monitor elections Sunday in Tunisia. “A lot of people have said for years that you can’t have democracy in any Arab country. If it succeeds here, it will stand as a role model.”

Tunisians rose up against 23-year strong man President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in December 2010, driving him into exile on Jan. 14. Now, with their elections, Tunisians have another chance to play an unlikely leadership role.

“Everyone is holding their breath to see what happens in Tunisia,” said Egyptian protest leader Shamira Abou Elail.

More than 500 international election observers will monitor Sunday’s vote, including dozens from Arab states. At least 7,000 Tunisian civil-society monitors, and 24,000 monitors provided by parties, will also keep tabs on the vote.

Tunisia, too, faces obstacles, including sharpening rifts between Islamist and more-secular oriented parties, between poverty-stricken rural dwellers in the country’s interior and a coastal elite, and between old regime holdovers and upstart political forces. The country faces swelling unemployment, especially among young college graduates, and drops in foreign investment as well as tourism, its No. 1 currency earner.

As in other parts of the region, Islamist political movements have quickly come to the forefront, spurring new tensions. But Tunisia’s Islamist movements have historically been more moderate than their counterparts elsewhere in the region.

Early Tunisian Islamic scholars pioneered progressive interpretations of Islam. Critics accuse the country’s contemporary Islamist leaders of preaching a tough vision of Islam to its base and a gentler version to others. But their campaign discourse has been on-message and inclusive. An unveiled female pharmacist heads their electoral list in one of the capital city’s two electoral districts.

“Our ultimate goal is to lay the foundation of a solid, sustainable and irreversible democratic system in Tunisia,” Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Nahda Party, told reporters on Wednesday. “Judge us on what we say and what we do, not what you allege our secret intentions are,” he said.

Among the Nahda candidates and activists who hit the streets to press the flesh with voters ahead of Sunday’s vote were candidate Mabrouk al-Akhdar and his 23-year-old daughter Marwa.

Mr. Akhdar is an oil engineer with an affinity for Texans and decades of Islamic activism behind him. His daughter, in slim-fit jeans, pink ballerina flats and flowing black hair, smiled playfully as she pressed voters to cast ballots for her father’s Nahda, or Renaissance, party. A sizable majority said they had already decided to do so.

Polls, which were halted last month under election rules, placed Nahda as garnering 20% to 40% of the vote. Polls predict the staunchly secular PDP, led by veteran opposition leader Nejib Chebbi will place a distant second. With some 11,000 candidates running on 116 electoral lists, the remainder of the newly elected assembly will likely include a hodgepodge of parties.

Nahda’s expected victory will put to test claims that the region’s long-suppressed Islamist parties are ready for political prime time as responsible pluralistic democrats. The world will be watching to see whether the likes of Mr. Akhdar and his stylish daughter drive the party’s governing priorities.

“We believe we have a huge responsibility riding on our shoulders, to Tunisians, to the West and to the rest of the Arab world,” said Sayid Ferjani, a Nahda politburo member. “Because we want to be the model to really put an end to the old-fashioned divisions.”

Polls suggest Tunisians have high hopes. One poll earlier this year reported over 80% of the country expected their living standard to improve dramatically in the upcoming year.

And so victory in these first elections could prove a poisoned chalice for the victorious party. But even that may be a good thing for Tunisian democracy.

“My feeling is the party who wins these elections will lose the next elections,” said a Western diplomat in Tunis. “So people are a little more willing to be high-principled democrats, even if it might cost them a seat or two.”

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