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Tunisia Holds Parliamentary Elections


Soumaya Rached Ghannouchi shows her ink-stained finger after voting in the country's first post-revolution parliamentary election on October 26, 2014 in the Tunis suburb of Ben Arous.
Soumaya Rached Ghannouchi shows her ink-stained finger after voting in the country's first post-revolution parliamentary election on October 26, 2014 in the Tunis suburb of Ben Arous.

Tunisians are voting Sunday in parliamentary elections seen as pivotal to establishing democracy in the cradle of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Tunisia was the first North African country to topple its government in a popular uprising in 2010 and has been relatively peaceful since.

This parliament will be the first permanent National Assembly since Tunisia's historic 2011 revolution, an event that inspired similar popular uprisings across the Arab world. Presidential elections follow next month.

While the so-called Arab Spring has led to chaos and bloodshed in some countries, Tunisia's fragile democracy remains a beacon of hope. But the North African country remains dogged by massive economic and security problems – issues that top the agenda for most Tunisian voters.

Tunisians heading to the polls Sunday face a bewildering array of choices. No fewer than 13,000 candidates from about 100 different parties are competing for the 217 parliamentary seats.

The huge electoral offer was also on display in 2011. That was the year Tunisia's revolution booted out dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and sparked similar uprisings across the Arab world. Tunisia's first free and fair elections later that year inspired joy and pride. Many people voted for the first time in their lives.

Major issue is jobs

The mood on the streets is very different today. Speaking from the capital, Tunis, political analyst Hamadi Redissi said that for many Tunisians, the elections boil down to one issue.

"Jobs, jobs, jobs. Creating jobs. Nobody is wiling to invest in this country – neither the Tunisians themselves nor the foreigners. And then, security and property and things like this. But jobs is the bottom line of all expectations," Redissi said.

Tunisia's economy has suffered since the revolution. Investments have plummeted and its vital tourism industry is struggling. Nationally, unemployment is about 15 percent, and much higher in some areas. Analysts say the economy needs to grow 5 percent yearly to turn Tunisia around. The government expects growth this year to be about half that amount.

Overall, there's a sense of disillusionment, said Anthony Dworkin, a Tunisia analyst and foreign policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"Opinion polls consistently show that large numbers of Tunisians are disappointed with what democracy has brought them so far ... but we haven't reached the critical stage yet. We haven't reached the point where the country wants to turn its back on the transition," he said.

Security concerns

Tunisians are also worried about the rise of militant Islam. Extremists threaten to derail the elections. The latest example came Friday, when Tunisian security forces killed six people outside the capital after a standoff with an Islamist group.

A new report by the International Crisis Group also describes alliances between jihadi groups and organized crime, particularly around Tunisia's unstable borders with Libya and Algeria.

"People now want order. The old enthusiasm of the post-revolution period seems to be over, in the sense they want to close the cycle of instability and uncertainty," said the Crisis Group's Tunisia analyst, Michael Ayari.

The danger, Ayari said, is if the next government uses security concerns as a pretext to crack down in ways similar to Tunisia's previous, autocratic regime.

"The pretext of anti-terrorism can be dangerous for democracy," said Ayari.


The two main parties promising answers to Tunisia's problems are radically different. One is the moderate Islamist Ennahda, which dominated the 2011 legislative vote, along with the coalition government that followed. The other is a new secular party called Nidaa Tounis, which is polling strongly. It was largely formed to oppose Ennahda, and it includes members of the former Ben Ali government, including its leader, 87-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi.

Analyst Redissi, a member of Nidaa Tounis, said Ennahda has made too many mistakes during its time in power.

"They have no expertise. They would love to Islamize the country. They have no competencies. They have no experience. The economy is falling down," said Redissi.

But the European Council's Dworkin said Ennahda has learned from its mistakes. It resigned from power earlier this year to end a political standoff, paving the way for a new constitution and elections.

"Ennahda, I think, has worked quite hard to craft a version of political Islam which is ready to work within a democratic and pluralist system. And they've been given the space to do that," said Dworkin.

It's unclear whether the secularists or the Islamists will emerge the winner in Sunday's vote. Polls and analysts predict neither will obtain a majority, suggesting another coalition government ahead. What's most at stake for many Tunisians is that democracy delivers and improves their lives.