Tunisia kicked off the Arab Spring, with its urban crowds effectively protesting the decades-long dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his nepotistic in-laws, the Trabelsi clan. The Tunisians were the first to demonstrate that flashmobs could, if sufficiently determined, outmaneuver the secret police and send a dictator into exile.
Even more remarkable than the revolution of last January, to my mind, is the widespread conviction on the part of Tunisians that the way forward is liberal, parliamentary democracy. Thus, Sunday’s election of a constituent assembly that will fashion a new constitution and form an interim government is in some ways the real revolution. For decades, most Arab states implicitly accepted the Leninist critique of parliaments as mere instruments of plutocracy and wholly unrepresentative. But it turns out that the main alternative to parliamentary democracy is not direct democracy but rather oppressive dictatorship masquerading as the latter.
Tunisia is a small country of 10.5 million, with 4.4 million registered voters. Astonishingly, almost all those registered voters went to the polls on Sunday, with an estimated turnout of 80- 90%. The thirst for democracy demonstrated by such a statistic is mind-boggling. (Americans won’t now remember this issue, but they were wild about the deeply flawed elections in Iraq in January of 2005, conducted amidst bombings and assassinations and under the tutelage of a foreign military occupation; turn-out there was in the end estimated some 30 points less than what we just saw in Tunisia).
There has been remarkably little election violence in Tunisia, as noted by Higher Elections Authority head Boubakr Belthabit.
Some 81 parties contested the elections, with a campaign season that began October 1 (Americans should imitate this feature of Tunisian elections)
Half the candidates put forward for seats by the parties have to be women.
Tunisia’s censorship bureau, the “Ministry of Information,” was abolished last spring, and the press and television is relatively free and lively. The most-watched television station is a fierce critic of the interim prime minister. Tunisia is the only Arab country without state censorship.
7472 persons, including 533 foreigners, were accredited as election observers, with the presence of 15 international organizations.
Although the Muslim religious party, al-Nahda (Ennahda) or Renaissance, is expected to do well, secular parties are turning in a solid performance in second place in early partial returns from provincial cities. It is unlikely that al-Nahda will get a majority of seats or be able to rule without secular coalition partners.
The rest of the Arab world is transfixed by the Tunisian elections. Since there has been a strong “demonstration effect” in the Arab world from Tunisian events, with the Egyptians and Libyans emulating Tunisian techniques of protest and reform. A successful election and democratic experiment could have a huge impact in the region.