By Arab News
Protests in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid have marred what was otherwise praised by international observers as a peaceful, free and fair election.
It was only natural that tempers would flare in Sidi Bouzid after candidate lists of a party contesting parliamentary elections were disqualified because of alleged financial irregularities. Candidates found themselves out in the cold in, of all places, the birthplace of the unrest which erupted late last year when street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight to protest harassment from the authorities. Bouazizi’s self-immolation is what triggered the Tunisian uprising, which set off a chain reaction in the region. The mishaps in Sidi Bouzid, whether in the voting process or the subsequent demonstrations, will fail to overshadow what was truly a milestone. In just five months, an independent Tunisian commission organized the first free elections in the North African nation’s history. The ballot attracted 80 parties offering candidates, drew a massive turnout by impassioned voters and was praised to the skies by international observers.
While a few scattered violations were reported, like in Sidi Bouzid, it was no mean feat to put together complicated elections involving 80 parties and drawing in more than 90 percent of registered voters in a country that had been nearly a one-party state since its independence from France in 1956.
As befitting the country which started this year’s Arab revolutions, Tunisia was the first of those countries to vote. The winner, the Islamist Ennahda, secured more than 41 percent of the vote and 90 seats in the 217-member Parliament. In seeking to distance the party’s reputation from other Islamist parties in the Arab world, the leader Rached Ghannouchi has made the point that there are different versions of political Islam, and that his party is much closer to the AKP of Turkey than it can ever be to the Taleban or Bin Laden.
Indeed, Tunisians admire the Turkish Erdogan model, inevitable for many reasons, most notably Tunisia’s economic dependence on tourism and its close ties with the West.
Ennahda was successful because it was perceived to be working for the popular classes. At the same time, it acted as a national and Arab nationalist movement and not just an Islamist one. Another major reason why Ennahda received such a large vote was because the Ben Ali regime had cast it as the primary target for repression in his police state. At the same time, the movement recast itself and presented itself to Tunisians as consistent with a modernist reform movement.
Perhaps the fact that the US, France and the EU had announced that they would not object to the participation of Ennahda members in government eased the anxieties of many voters.
In all, the Tunisian success stemmed from an effective independent election commission that had the trust of the country’s diverse parties and a fairly homogenous, peaceful population that believed in the process. Tunisia also had the advantage of starting from scratch after a revolution that motivated the population to make a clean break from the past. No matter the results, Tunisia’s landmark election was a monumental achievement in democracy and a success story hard to replicate but which elections next month in Egypt and Morocco and later in Libya should try to emulate.