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Tunisia's First Presidential Election: A Positive Step Forward

November 24, 2014
 
A woman in Tunis holds up her finger showing she has voted in the election.

Tunis, Tunisia – Tunisia’s November 23 presidential election marks another positive step in the country’s transition to democracy.  A delegation from IRI said “Tunisia’s first ever democratic presidential election was orderly and well administered allowing citizens to express their democratic will at the ballot box.”  

IRI commends the High Independent Authority for Elections (ISIE) for quickly responding to lessons learned from the October 26 legislative elections to make improvements to the presidential election process. The ISIE’s prompt actions to improve electoral administration are all the more impressive given the short time frame between the two elections. 

Former Congressman Jim Kolbe, a co-leader of IRI’s delegation, said he was impressed with the quick changes that were made in the one-month time period between elections.  He went on to state, “The stage is now set for Tunisia to advance its democratic transition with a probable presidential run-off election on December 28.  It is hoped the country’s next coalition government, working with a new president, will move quickly and incisively to instill public confidence in newly established democratic institutions.”  

IRI’s delegation co-leader Marta Gonzalez Vazquez, a Member of Parliament from Spain, commented that she was, “Encouraged to see the active participation of women as poll workers and noted the sense of national pride and responsibility that was evident among both election officials and voters.”

IRI’s international delegation of 58 observers witnessed voting and ballot counting at more than 230 polling stations.  In addition to observers in Tunisia, IRI delegates in England, France, Germany and the United States witnessed voting by Tunisian citizens living overseas.

IRI’s Election Snapshot (Arabic and French), that accompanies the preliminary statement gives citizens and media an easy to use reference on how Tunisia performed across a number of categories including:

  • Electoral laws, guidelines and processes
  • Electoral environment
  • Electoral integrity
  • Voter empowerment
  • Freedom to campaign
  • Women and youth participation
  • Freedom to participate
  • Election Day logistics
  • Counting and tabulation process

The Snapshot utilizes key indicators based on international standards for the conduct of open and transparent democratic elections and assigns basic value to the indicators based on the observations of IRI observers.

IRI’s Election Snapshot Analysis

Electoral Processes and Election Day Logistics

Improvements to Electoral Administration   

Election workers appeared to be better trained, more organized and have a better understanding of electoral procedures.  As in the October elections, IRI observers also noted security personnel inside polling centers at some locations, but their presence did not interfere in the voting process or appear intimidating.

Several technical improvements were made including the introduction of a ruler device used by poll workers to improve the orderliness of voter signatures on the registry.  Not retaining voter identification cards until after a vote was cast, another change from the October parliamentary elections, also allowed poll workers to administer the voting process more efficiently. 

IRI’s overseas observers noted that fewer Tunisian voters casting ballots abroad appeared to be turned away for the November 23 presidential election and credits ISIE and overseas regional independent election commissions with improvements to the accuracy of the voter registry at overseas voting locations.

Improved Transparency

IRI also notes the ISIE appeared to make a concerted effort in the lead-up to November 23 to communicate with the public and media to provide voters with important election information more frequently.  IRI encourages the ISIE to continue a proactive communications effort with the public in advance of future elections, including the December 28 presidential run-off election.

Electoral Efficiency

A key recommendation made by IRI in its statement on the legislative elections focused on the assignment of voters to polling stations within a polling center.  IRI noted that the assignment of voters according to a sequential listing of national identification numbers had the effect of segregating older voters from younger voters at different voting stations at the same polling center.  This lengthened wait time for voters and created greater workloads for some election workers.  IRI recommended that the burden on poll workers would be reduced if voters were assigned to polling stations using different a method, such as by surname, home address or a randomization of identification number. The change was not made by ISIE for the November 23 presidential election and although it did not result in the disenfranchisement of voters, IRI again recommends a serious examination of the methodology used for voter assignment at polling centers before future elections occur.

Vote Counting

Having observed vote counting processes for both the October 26 parliamentary elections and November 23 presidential election, IRI recommends that ISIE issue more specific guidelines on counting procedures for future elections to shorten the counting time and create more uniformity among counting procedures in Tunisia’s more than 10,000 polling stations.  In addition, ISIE should provide clear guidelines for domestic observers and party and candidate agents in the polling center.

Electoral Integrity

Campaign Financing

IRI heard a number of accusations of unlawful campaign financing during the pre-electoral period but had no substantiation of these charges.  Because Tunisia’s campaign finance law is ambiguous and complex, candidates found it difficult to adhere to all regulations.  By simplifying and clearly communicating the campaign finance law, candidates and their campaigns would be less likely to circumvent campaign finance regulations in the future.  IRI recommends that Tunisia’s incoming parliament examines current rules regulating public financing limits, individual donations and financial expenditure reporting to determine whether a simplified system that more realistically reflects campaign spending be instituted.  Simplified rules would also make enforcement by the relevant institutions more effective.

Vote Buying 

One of the primary complaints leveled against candidates was focused on their offering financial compensation for votes.  While these allegations are difficult to prove, the consistency of the complaint speaks to an underlying problem in the electoral campaign process.  The ambiguity and lack of enforcement measures in the campaign finance law allows for vote buying with little chance of penalty.  Clearer campaign finance regulations supported with viable enforcement tools are critical to curtailing vote buying and similar infractions and to maintain the integrity of the election process.

In Tunisia’s transitional democratic context, it is essential for political leaders and candidates to lead the way in following the law.  While there are aspects of the campaign finance law that should be amended to allow for better compliance and better enforcement, political leaders have the responsibility to promote the rule of law by example.

Freedom to Campaign

The campaign regulatory system placed an undue burden on candidates and their campaigns in the presidential election much as it did on political parties and candidate groups in the legislative elections. Complex and overreaching regulations on campaign events and campaign advertising stifle the ability of voters to make informed choices about candidates in Tunisia’s nascent democratic electoral process. Limits on the time allotted for candidates to present their political programs on television and prohibiting candidates from running under the banner of a political party in the presidential election seem unnecessary and hamper candidates in their effort to provide voters with issue oriented political programs.  Combined with an overly limited campaign period, the current regulations encourage personality-based campaigning instead of a deeper, policy-rooted exchange of ideas.  IRI recommends that campaigning rules be re-examined prior to future elections to allow political parties and candidates to interact more freely with voters.

Women and Youth Participation

IRI noted in its October 26 parliamentary elections statement that young voters did not turn out to vote in as large numbers as older voters. This trend appears to have continued in the November 23 presidential election.  Although youth voter participation is a challenge in many democracies, the prominent role played by young people in Tunisia’s revolution makes it even more important that young Tunisians be brought into the political process.  As IRI acknowledged in its previous statement, “It is clear that there must be a greater emphasis placed on the civic engagement of young Tunisians if the country is to realize its full democratic potential.” 

IRI observers witnessed the active participation of women as poll workers and as voters.  IRI commends ISIE for its efforts to ensure the robust participation of women in administering the election.  IRI also commends the sole female candidate Kalthoum Kennou for her pioneering performance in the country’s first presidential election.

Background

Leading IRI’s international delegation in Tunisia was Jim Kolbe former U.S. Congressman (AZ-8) who serves as vice chair of IRI’s Board of Directors and is a senior transatlantic fellow for the German Marshall Fund of the United States; Marta González Vázquez, a member of Parliament for La Coruna, Spain; and Judy Van Rest, executive vice president of IRI.

Other delegates who will observe the election are:

  • Martin Bayr, a partner at Kyle House Group and former foreign policy advisor to former Senator John E. Sununu;
  • Paul DeGregorio, senior advisor to the Association of World Election Bodies;
  • Alison B. Fortier, a member of IRI’s Board of Directors and a member of the Board of Trustees of Freedom House
  • Mary Katharine Ham, editor-at-large of Hot Air and a Fox News Channel contributor;
  • Stephen Lecce of Canada, deputy director of communications for the Office of the Prime Minister;
  • Vincent Talvas, former chief of staff to then French minister of budget, public accounts, public service and state reform; and
  • Chase Untermeyer, former United States ambassador to Qatar and former director of the Voice of America.

In addition to observers in Tunisia, IRI delegates in England, France, Germany and the United States witnessed voting by Tunisian citizens living overseas.  

Those delegates include:

  • Cole Bockenfeld, advocacy director of the Project on Middle East Democracy;
  • Simon Hutzler, a political activist with the Christian Social Union in Germany;
  • Duncan MacFarlane, a consultant for the United Kingdom’s Westminster Foundation for Democracy;
  • Evan O’Connell, communications officer for the French National Institute for Agricultural Research
  • Alex Russell, a program associate at the Project on Middle East Democracy; 
  • Christian Sandmeier, an assistant to the director of the international office of the Christian Democratic Union in Germany; and
  • Arwa Shobaki, director of development and communications at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

Scott Mastic, director of IRI’s Middle East and North Africa programs, assisted in the mission.  IRI’s long-term observers, who have been in Tunisia since August, 2014 and have been monitoring the pre-electoral environment and election preparations, served as observers on Election Day.  

Delegates were briefed by political party representatives and Tunisian election officials.  They were also briefed on the rights and responsibilities of international observers and Tunisian election law. 

IRI endorses the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observers and Code of Conduct for International Election Observers.  Since 1983, through international election observation missions and assessments, IRI has monitored 202 elections in 56 countries. 

Past IRI Reports on this Election Cycle in Tunisia: