Tunisia’s parliamentary elections, held on October 26, 2014, were the country’s second experience of an electoral process since the revolution, following the 2011 elections to the Constituent Assembly tasked with writing the new constitution. In the latest elections, 121 political parties and coalitions were represented by 1,327 electoral lists, who competed in 33 electoral districts (27 in Tunisia and 6 for Tunisians living abroad), with multiple international observation missions vetting their electoral integrity.
In contrast to the 2011 Constituent Assembly election, Tunisia’s parliamentary election displayed a strong spirit of national reconciliation. Furthermore, it did not exhibit the complete rupture with the Ben Ali regime that was evident in 2011. The result was a political map that pitted the Islamist Ennahda movement as a “conservative” political force against Nidaa Tounes, a movement that coalesced in 2012 as a counterweight to Ennahda’s power. While the courts have yet to issue a final ruling on a number of contested results, Ennahda, which won 89 seats in the 2011 polls was left with 69 seats in the 2014 legislature, compared to the 85 parliamentary seats won by Nidaa Tounes.
Understanding Electoral Behavior
Tunisia’s latest electoral experience has highlighted a number of factors that are fundamental to the understanding of any electoral process.
To begin with, somewhat uncharacteristically, the elections were completely independent and free from any intervention by the government. The role of international and local civil society and other observer missions—including both the Carter Foundation and the European Commission—was a decisive factor in the success of the elections, as was the integrity and impartiality of Tunisia’s High Electoral Commission.
The voter participation rate was also noticeably high by global standards, and this was true across all of Tunisia’s provinces and districts: more than 50% of the eligible electorate had turned out on the first day of polling, with the ultimate turnout being roughly 62% over two days of voting. The significance of abstaining voters, however, should not be downplayed, particularly when these were believed to be the driving force behind the revolution and the changes sweeping across Tunisia since 2011.
The factors driving voter participation and—equally—abstention, can be interpreted in multiple ways. Understanding voting patterns and drivers will no doubt prove vital to the success of political parties in the future. An important factor to bear in mind is that the differences in voter participation amongst the youth in differing districts have not been understood: nobody can explain why voter turnout was higher in some places than in others. Understanding the causes behind these differences, whether in Tunisia or elsewhere, is an important part of understanding the electoral process as a whole. More broadly, why is it that close to 40% of voters abstained in the parliamentary elections, compared to only 10% who abstained in the 2011 polls for the Constituent Assembly? Could this be a case of political apathy in an emergent democracy?
Table 1: Electorate by registration status
Gross total of legally eligible voters
Voters who participated/cast ballots
While it remains important to geographically understand the results of the elections, doing so may prove highly sensitive. Observers and analysts may end up reading too much into the results and could potentially find themselves also dealing with questions concerning the ethics of political communication. Something akin to “electoral strongholds” may also emerge in nascent Arab democracies such as Tunisia, but not before the passage of time. One striking similarity between both the 2011 and the 2014 polls, and a lesson to be learned from them is that punitive electoral behavior—in this case, votes cast out of a sense of a lack of security—is not geographically bound to specific regions in Tunisia, but prevalent across the entire country.
There is a risk here of adopting a pre-conceived pattern to analyze voting behavior, for example falling prey to the idea that geography alone can explain differences in voting (“the north votes one way while the south votes another”), but this would be to miss the forest for the trees. Our figurative tree here is the non-homogeneous geographic distribution of votes across a country like Tunisia, which is nonetheless largely homogeneous in terms of ethnicity, language and in terms of religion and sect. The hidden forest, in this case, takes the form of the social dynamics that lead to the differences in voter behavior across geographical boundaries, but can be accounted for in terms of temperament and psychology, as well as agitation and media coverage. All of these must be documented and understood at the opportune moment. Just as soon the election results were announced (see Table 2), a mold was quickly fit onto them: the public was told that the political polarization evident in the election results was echoed along the geographical boundaries of Tunisia.
To continue reading this Case Analysis in PDF, please click here. This document was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English editing team. To read the original Arabic version, which was published online on November 14, 2014, please click here.