Democracy dawns with Tunisian elections

Nine months after the first uprising of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has held its first free elections. The world's newest democracy holds a burden of hope for North Africa and the Middle East.

Queuing in orderly lines, showing their inked fingerprints and beaming with pride, Tunisians have good reason to celebrate. After 50 years of tyranny, the birthplace of the Arab Spring has become the first of the countries in North Africa to hold free and fair elections after a successful revolution.

Many of those casting their ballots on Sunday were voting for the first time in their lives. Before January's dramatic uprising, elections were rigged and farcical: few bothered to vote, and authoritarian ruler Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali routinely won implausible 99.91% victories.

For ordinary Tunisians, his overthrow means a genuine opportunity to shape their own future. Some told reporters that the results themselves hardly matter: 'We have all won', they said, conveying the idea that representation of the people is a victory in itself. And that democracy should have a profound impact on social justice and freedom across Tunisia.

But the baby-steps of democracy look very different from established party politics. Up to 90% of registered voters cast their ballots for around 110 political parties. Candidates have been elected to a 217-seat parliament, and will write Tunisia's new constitution before more elections next year.

The biggest winner is An-Nahda, a moderate Islamist party whose supporters suffered brutal persecution at the hands of Ben Ali's regime.

It will have a central role in laying the foundations for Tunisia's future. But for the secular parties which share the remainder of the vote, An-Nahda's success is a reason to feel nervous. Though its leaders have pledged allegiance to liberal values and freedom of religion, some observers worry that power – which they will have to share in a coalition –could see the party adopting a harder line.

With such a blank political canvas there is as much anxiety as excitement. Neither politicians nor voters have experience of democracy. The corruption, police brutality, and mass unemployment that characterised Ben Ali's regime, too, have not gone away. Amid high hopes for the future, many are quietly concerned that any perceived failings could lead to further unrest.

Is a vote enough?

For millions of Tunisians, the right to vote is, in itself, a victory. When a population can hold their leaders accountable and express their needs through regular, peaceful elections, governments have no choice but to rule fairly, to maintain their appeal to the public.

A democratic vote, however, is not a magic bullet. The newly elected government of Tunisia now has a heavy responsibility: if it fails to be transparent, increase Tunisian prosperity, and reflect the needs of the whole population, the joy that characterised these elections will be short-lived.

You Decide

  1. Is democracy effective in representing the will of the people in your country?
  2. Is a vote the most important tool of democracy? Or is there something else - the rule of law? Freedom of speech and religion?

Activities

  1. Design a campaign encouraging people in Tunisia to vote. Think about what medium to use, and the important messages that will get people talking.
  2. Research the story behind an established democracy, such as the USA, or France. What problems did these countries encounter? Write a guide advising Tunisia's government about how to avoid these problems.

Some People Say...

“Democracy is always the least bad option for government.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What about other countries, like Libya and Egypt?
Transitional governments were set up to guide the move to democracy. In Egypt, the military are currently in charge but elections are planned for November.
Will they face different challenges to Tunisia?
Tunisia is generally regarded as having a unified and well-educated population, and the military were quick to relinquish power after the revolution. These factors could make their transition smoother than in Libya and Egypt. Of course, the Syrians and Yemenis are still struggling against their own dictators and suffering violent repression.
How will the rest of the world help?
International observers approved of the conduct of the elections, declaring them free and fair. In the long term, Tunisia hopes to expand its economy, and other countries have pledged support with trade agreements.

Word Watch

Arab Spring
The series of uprisings, started in Tunisia, which overthrew dictatorial regimes across the Middle East.
Inked Fingers
To prevent people voting twice, officials inked voters' fingers after they cast their ballots.
Constitution
A document detailing the fundamental principles about how a state should be governed.
Islamist
A political form of Islam, which seeks to see laws and political policy reflect Islamic belief and law. The ideology ranges in severity, and may involve Shariah law, banning alcohol, or requiring women to wear Hijab.
Secular
A belief that politics and religion should be kept separate.

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