Tunisians make case for historic elections

October 22, 2011

Yamen Zaidi cheered and clapped, punching the air in a café near the weekly open air market in Tunisia’s coastal resort of Monastir.

But Yamen was not watching a European football match at the café. He was sitting with his friends, talking about the country’s historic elections to be held on Sunday.

“Initially, we thought that Al Nahda will coast to a landslide victory,” he said as he reigned in his over-pronounced enthusiasm. “But now we could see that a combination of last minute errors of judgement and a more assertive presence of the other parties have thrown open the race for the seats in the assembly,” said the young teacher.

Ten months ago, no-one could think that Tunisia would be holding on October 23 the first true multiparty elections for a fresh start in the exercise of democracy. Elections have always been an affair of a few people, carefully selected by the authorities and the whole election operation was a masquerade that invariably failed to raise the nation’s interest.

“This time, things are so different and we are proud of what is being achieved. It is a real series of firsts. It is the first elections in an Arab country that changed its ruler peacefully. It is the first time that so many people could be candidates without fear or concerns. It is the first time that the interior ministry has no role in running the elections. It is the first time that so many women could run. It is simply great,” Yamen said. “I am happy because we will not see the domination of a single entity simply because it had more money or more experience. Now, there is room for others.”

In his penultimate speech in the campaign, Rashid Gannounchi, the leader of Al Nahda, the moderate religious party widely tipped to win the elections, sparked a controversy by claiming that the party adherents were ready to descend into the streets if the elections results were tampered with.

“His message was conceived to include threats and that was not good for many party leaders,” Yusuf Sakka, a retired teacher, said. “The reaction to the screening of a controversial movie on a Tunisian private channel was rather violent and that did not go well with many voters, especially that other parties seized the occasion to hit at Al Nahda and claim that they represented a more liberal and tolerant option,” he said in the café.

Nesma TV came under heavy criticism, mainly by religious groups for broadcasting an animated film that included a depiction of God. The channel later apologised, but a heated debate on the status of religion, the limits on freedom of expression and the place of religious groups in the country was launched.

According to Yousuf, the number of parties running in the elections was a healthy sign “as long as they were genuinely representing the people.”

“I do welcome the notion of mosaics, but I must stress that it should not be false mosaics that give a perception of diversity of parties and ideologies, but in fact are a mere reflection of one another. Real mosaics represent the harmony of the image and not the image of the harmony,” he said.

For Habib Galil, an enthusiastic campaigner, said the left does offer an attractive platform that has a good chance to win several seats despite its “lifeless campaign”.

“In the beginning, we saw no future for the left in these elections and its aftermath. Al Nahda with its religious base and message had the best chance to win, especially among conservative people and young enthusiastic young men and women,” he said. “People who admire their sense of organisation and their way of disseminating their messages often express their support. However, there are liberal candidates who have also left good impressions and we believe that their presence in the assembly will be good for the country,” he said.

With only hours before polling stations were scheduled to receive the first voters and with the official campaign over, conversations in cafés, the most popular forums for Tunisians regardless of their backgrounds were focusing on the performance of the parties in the three weeks before the voting.

Only social networks, especially Facebook, could rival in the intensity of the conversations on the historic day. Less technology-savvy campaigners resorted to the traditional ways of summoning people by beating drums or using callers with loud voices.

‘We appreciated the fact that party leaders did not remain in their ivory towers, but went to the field and talked to the people,” Mohsin Zamni said. “People have been caught in a deluge of posters and pamphlets from all parties presenting in broad and vague words their platforms, and that did not augur well for the elections,” he said. “Fortunately, they woke up from their stupor and sent their leaders to talk to the people and assure them of what they can do for them and for the nation. It is not the grand US style in elections campaign, but for a start, it was something good,” he said, near the old port of Monastir, the city in which Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president was born and in which both Julius Caesar and the German general Erwin Rommel popularly known as the Desert Fox camped before crucial battles.

On Friday afternoon, the tree-lined Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis was taken over by parties making their last efforts to woe hesitant voters.

“This is a great day for us and for the nation,” Hedia Danouni, a candidate said. “We wanted to be part of this historic moment and help build the nation together. We wanted to prove that Tunisia is not for only one party, one section or one region. We have been at the forefront of Arab countries and we want to maintain and in fact reinforce our status,” she said, speaking loudly as the music coming from her party stand loudspeaker and the honking from the waves of campaigning cars in the avenue was making it increasingly difficult to hear her.

In January, the avenue was the scene of the massive demonstrations that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

On Saturday morning, municipality employees were exerting extra efforts to remove the thousands of pamphlets, calendars and pictures littering the roads around the stands put up by the various parties. The campaign was officially over. Sunday will witness the first genuine multiparty elections in the nascent democracy.




About the author

Born August 3, 1960 in Monastir, Tunisia
Media career:
  • ABC News (Tunisia)
  • Bahrain Tribune
  • Gulf News
  • Bahrain Television News
Teaching career:
  • Monastir (Tunisia)
  • University of Bahrain
  • MA  Mass Communications, University of Leicester
  • BA  in English & US literature and studies, University of Tunis

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