Campus News

November 21, 2011

Report From: The Carter Center

Tunisians embrace move toward democracy

By Deborah Hakes, assistant director in the Carter Center's Office of Public Information

In the weeks leading up to its Oct. 23 election, Tunisia was abuzz as citizens debated the upcoming vote.

Two female college students on a park bench in downtown Gafsa, in central Tunisia, discussed the merits of the election, in which 217 people would be chosen to serve on a constituent assembly charged with writing a new constitution. One student was doubtful of political party promises and said she would only vote for independent candidates. Her companion added that "there are so many political parties but nothing good comes from them." She said she would not vote in the election, which was the first open and competitive contest in decades.

Meanwhile, the conversation between the students brought over one of their brothers, who enthusiastically declared his intent to vote. Soon, another man nearby yelled that he would not participate. "Why not?" the brother asked. "You are Tunisian: you need to register and vote." Turning to the Carter Center observers watching the debate unfold, he smiled and said, "This is the conversation of Tunisians across the country."

When Election Day finally arrived, voters swarmed polling stations in droves. People waited in line from two to six hours to cast their ballots, wrapping themselves in the Tunisian flag and speculating about the future. "Voting is our right," said one 19-year-old university student waiting to vote in Tunis. "We want to live free and have good opportunity. I want a job and to be able to raise a family."

A Carter Center team of 65 observers monitored polling stations around the country on Election Day, co-led by Carter Center President and CEO John Hardman and former Mauritius President Cassam Uteem. Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter accompanied the leadership team.

"Tunisia launched the Arab Spring and is the first to hold elections," said Hardman. "What happens here could be a model for other countries in the region like Egypt and Libya. It's significant. Everyone is watching this process."

In a preliminary statement, the Carter Center reported that voting was marked by peaceful and enthusiastic participation, generally transparent procedures, and popular confidence about Tunisia's democratic transition. Deficiencies included insufficient information about the allocation of voters to polling stations and a lack of detailed procedures and training for vote counting, tabulation and election dispute resolution.

Although Tunisia will not be transformed overnight as a result of the election, the sure and lively debate among citizens is one sign that the country is moving toward open democracy.

"People need to recognize the real importance of this election -- how much we had to go through to get here," said Zied Mhirsi, co-founder of TunisiaLive. "We will elect a group of people to represent us. Our elections will influence the way the whole region will go. Take a look at us; we are doing it peacefully."

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