Surprises of the Tunisian Election

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.

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16 Responses

  1. “For decades, most Arab states implicitly accepted the Leninist critique of parliaments as mere instruments of plutocracy and wholly unrepresentative.” -J. Cole

    When the determining factor in most elections is money, then that’s what is to be expected. Would Juan Cole want to argue that the US political system is responsive to the majority of the people in this country? The OWS movement surely isn’t indicative of that. What was the reception among the capitalist, corporate media and most of the US Congress to the People’s Budget? Compare those crickets to the fawning over the Ryan plan. Would cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other programs intended to help the working class, poor and elderly be on the chopping block in the Super Committee if it represented the economic interests of most people? Would the deficit and the debt be highlighted as the biggest problem in the US while 25 million people are unemployed, involuntarily working part time and jobless but not officially counted as unemployed if the US government was responsive to the needs of most people?

    Maybe Leninists are right?

    • Representative democracy doesn’t have to be broken, but America’s is. And yes, the longer wealth is entrenched, the more likely these conditions get. So in the long run, one of these things is going to have to go.

    • Off the top of my head, I’m going to draw an analogy between America/Tunisian politics and American/Asian telecommunications technology. In the communications area, one big reason America is behind Asia is that Asian infrastructure is much newer. In America, we have billions of dollars worth of old copper wire overhead and under the streets that the phone companies want to keep using.

      • I’ve thought the same thing.

        We’re still running Democracy 1.1 or 1.2, while the new machines are coming with version 4.0 loaded.

  2. After living under a secular dictatorship for so long, a lot of people are going to turn towards religious parties. That is to be expected. I’m wanting for U.S. politicians to say that we should have supported Ben Ali’s crackdown on protesters.

    The only votes that are official are the ones from Tunisians living abroad. Ennahda won 9 the 18 seats, three secular parties won 7 seats, and some other party won one seat. It’s unclear how may seats Ennahda will win in total. Earlier members of Ennahda were saying they won 50 of the vote%. Now they’re saying greater than 30% and talking about forming a coalition with other parties. Who knows.

  3. I meant to say that I’m WAITING for U.S. politicians to say that we should have supported Ben Ali, not that I want them to say that.

  4. Professor,

    Would be helpful if you sent Tunisia’s constituent assembly/government a copy of your 10 Ways Arab Democracies Can Avoid Aerican Mistakes:

    link to

    I don’t know how to do this.


  5. That goes to Jay. I´m in morocco right now. I did not had internet access. So I could not reply your question on time. This is an example clip in youtube. Just tip in the search field : Libya is a country amazigh. and then you find a lot of other Anti-Arab clips in there. another more important sign that Berber Fascist want to take over the libyan revolution is that the world amazigh congress recently change the algerian head of the movement. A libyan is now the head. Even Berbers or Amazigh libyans are a absolute minority compared to Morocco. This Fascist want a piece of the cake to sponsor there pan-Berberism.

  6. Egyptians and Libyans emulating Tunisian techniques of protest and reform.

    Oh sure it would be nice but Tunisian doesn’t have anything the west wants so they might be left alone. The other 2 not so lucky

    • “Oh sure it would be nice but Tunisian doesn’t have anything the west wants so they might be left alone. The other 2 not so lucky”

      Libyans were actually quite lucky that the west along with others got involved, if they didnt Gaddafis current health status would be quite good while the health status of many of those that protested his rule in east libya would be currently non-existent.

      • The above should not have been a Reply to jo6pac post. Its a response to Juan’s blog post.

  7. If If If someone wanted representive democracy to be potentially more representive would it not be reasonable to have an election for each cabinet post? Do I need to spell it out? I mean like a direct election for the education minister, the justice minister, the defence minister, the transportation minister and so on. As long as someone might be at it rather than electing just one person to each of these positions why not a central committee of say 7 or 9 in each of the cabinet positions. Then there would be room for seveal different factions to be represented in each cabinet level decision.
    Is this to experimental of an idea?
    Well come on come on is it now?
    Does a society have to let the prime minister or the president appoint the cabinet ministers just because that is the way it has been done in the past?
    Was it done that way in the past to serve the common good?
    Ok that gets a little off the subject but not much as it was brought up by someone, I forget who that Marxists do not really place much stock in Parliments.
    So I am taking Marxists criticisms and offering some advice for improvements.

    • In most parliamentary democracies the PM does not have free reign in selecting the cabinet.

      In countries where there are ad-hoc coalitions, as there always are in many European countries and Israel, decisions on who, from which party, gets what cabinet positions must be negotiated.

      In parliamentary systems that normally result in one of two parties getting an absolute majority (eg UK, Australia) then who gets what must be negotiated between the factional and geographical blocks within the party.

      In both cases the terrain to be negotiated cannot be known until after the elections.

      I don’t think popular election of Ministers will work; the tyranny of the majority will, more often than not, trump the wisdom of the crowd.

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