Tunisia needs better elected politicians

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Tunisia’s revolution, the first and only surviving manifestation of the Arab Spring, faces a new test with the election next month of a successor to the late Beji Caid Essebsi followed by a general election in October.

These second free elections since the ouster of the Ben Ali regime in 2011 are notable for the number of independent candidates. Around a hundred people have cast their hats into the ring for the presidency. There is also a plethora of would-be legislators who are saying they are aligned to no particular party. This potentially chaotic situation is evidence of the perceived weakness of the current electoral laws, a weakness which last year the late president recognized. He established a team of experts to recommend changes and also examine the possibility of adjusting the constitution to give greater executive powers to the presidency.

Some 70 parties contested the first general election of which 21 succeeded in having members elected to the 217-seat National Assembly. Neither of the two largest parties, Nidaa Tounes with 86 seats and the moderate Islamic Ennahda Movement with 69 was capable of governing by itself. Moreover Nidaa Tounes then saw squabbles and defections, so that going into the new election, it only has 37 sitting members. A multi-party system ought not to be a problem. However, other countries which operate similar proportional representation electoral systems generally manage to negotiate and compromise to allow the legislature and government to function successfully. This has not so far been the case in Tunisia. All legislators, of course, claim to be acting in the best interests of the country, but not enough of them see that an effective parliament needs give and take. Sticking obdurately to political positions impedes the process of government and prevents it from tackling Tunisia’s most pressing issues, particularly youth unemployment and rural poverty.

This stubbornness has been compounded by the unfortunate example of elected members failing to keep in touch with their constituents. Successive polls seem to show that Tunisians are fed up with their political leaders and have sharply declining faith in democracy, even though few favor a return to a Ben Ali-style dictatorship run by an elite kleptocracy. Yet remarkably, in the run up to these elections, the Independent Higher Elections Committee is reporting a surge of 1.5 million new voter registrations. In a country of 11.5 million, the electorate now numbers 6.7 million.

It would seem that though Tunisians are desperately disappointed in democracy, they still hope the next set of politicians they choose will be able to do better. A July poll showed that Ennahda, the only party that has shown parliamentary discipline, has an 8.6 percent approval rating, trailing behind the brand new party Heart of Tunisia with 20.8 percent.

Whatever the outcome of these elections, those who are entrusted with political power simply have to recognize that they have taken on a huge responsibility. Tunisians are fed up. They want effective and honest government. Parties may have widely differing interests but they ought to have one over-riding concern, which is the success of Tunisian democracy. Maybe it would be an idea to hang up a large sign in parliament reading: “Is what I am about to say or do going to make the running of my country better or worse?”


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