Gale's View - Tunisia Elections    2nd November 2011

The writing on the wall, red painted in Arabic, says “Mohamed Bouazizi”.  It is the name of the young man whose suicide by self-immolation kindled the flame that set fire to what has become known as the “Arab Spring”.
Standing on this spot in Sidi Bouzid in Southern Tunisia as a nation participates in its first democratic parliamentary elections is a moving experience. It cannot be otherwise. 

The name in red reads Mohamed Bouazizi
The big question, now, is to where will this path and the new government that flows from it, lead? The answer is important not just to North Africa and to the Middle East but to the peace and future security of every single person that I was elected to represent.

Since Mohamed Bouazizi`s death and the departure, on 14th January of this year, of the Dictator Zine Ben Ali, Tunisia has been ruled by an interim administration, The Government of National Union,  that has paved the way for these elections.  It has been a Herculean task.  Starting from scratch, with no electoral register, no real experience of democracy, no proper political organisation and facing a great wave of doubt and mistrust, the Election Commission , with the support of the international community, has put together a package that works.  Almost.
Two elderly voters – note the bullet hole in the wall between them!
Little more than 50% of the population have bothered to register to vote as some have unwisely campaigned against participation in the whole process. In some areas there are more than 90 candidates, many of them standing individually and independently of any political party, on the ballot papers. That makes for confusion and mis-understanding. The elderly and infirm, particularly, find it impossible to grasp and without assistance, which is denied under the rules, we know that many ballot papers are placed, blank, into the ballot box by those who, having taken the trouble to turn up, cannot cope.
The very many who hold Identity Cards but are not on the register are supposed to be allowed to check by SMS and turn up at their local polling station to cast their vote.  By mid-morning the overwhelmed SMS system crashes and crowds start to gather at Election Centres.  In Sbietl, a town that has only recently been under curfew following violent clashes, my interpreter and I have to shove our way through a gathering of some five hundred angry people to reach the officials with whom we need to speak.  Under Ben Ali the considerable police and military presence would almost certainly have been shooting by now but those charged with keeping order show good humour and restraint and indicate no desire to turn their guns upon their own people. That, and the fact that in this Moslem country the demonstration is not fuelled by alcohol, allows a potentially dangerous situation to pass without serious consequences.
They told us that the votes would be counted and that results would start to flow in by between 10.30 and 11.00pm.  That was never going to be the case. As darkness fell at 6pm there were still queues of people waiting to vote before close of poll at 7pm. Stations stayed open and my guess is that all of those who bothered to wait were, in the end, given the opportunity to exercise their democratic right..   Having begun the day at 5am we and the election staff drifted on into the night and only as I reached the airport to fly home some thirty-six hours after the election started was a pattern beginning to emerge after a vote that appeared to me as an observer to be, at least technically, largely free and fair.
The largest and only well-organised political organisation in Tunisia is the ` Moderate Islamist` Ennahda party, banned and suppressed under Ben Ali. All of the other groupings, including significant parties featuring prominently in the opinion polls, have demonstrated themselves to be in campaigning terms woefully inadequate.. Very many people who are by no means natural supporters of Ennahda have clearly voted for them because, as one lady told me, “now we can”.

The end result of this electoral freedom may be unexpected: while Ennahda describes itself as wanting to be a “moderate secular party”, like the governing body in Turkey, there is the very real possibility that a harder line core within might take control.

Election posters
The duty of the new administration is to create a new constitution for Tunisia and then to return to the electorate within about eighteen months to elect a new and full government and, possibly, a Presidential Head of State.  The group that drives that process will have great power and a considerable effect upon the politics of North Africa, including an Egypt that will be voting at the end of next month, upon the Middle East and even Iran.
In the last few days I have witnessed great hope and also a real fear. If these elections are shown to have produced a fair balance of moderate opinion then the Jasmine Revolution that started in Sidi Bouzid at the turn of the year will have achieved a great deal and helped to make the world in which we all live a safer place...  If the process has thrown up, democratically but by accident rather than design, a newly over-dominant and rigid regime then the observation made to me that “we are moving backwards at the rate of a century a week” may prove to have been frighteningly prophetic.

It would be quite awful if, nine months down the road, those who have participated in the dawn of the Arab Spring found themselves looking fondly over their shoulders at a stability that may have been corrupt and authoritarian but that has been replaced with something still more sinister.

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