Alleged violations mar Tunisia parliamentary elections
TUNIS - Tunisia’s parliamentary elections appear to have failed to forge a clear path to mend divisions and prepare the country for a crucial junction that requires structural reforms to address lingering economic, social and security concerns.
Instead, low voter turnout and an increasingly fragmented political landscape soured the mood and raised questions about how Tunisia will cope with the challenges ahead, analysts said.
"We are faced with three main problems: an increasing mistrust in the electoral process, a parliament that is too fragmented to function properly and the rise of many shadowy figures who could pose a threat to the country's democratic transition," said political activist Yamine Ben Salem.
Though EU observers hailed the October 6 polls as “orderly and transparent,” some independent Tunisian associations said the voting had been marred by serious irregularities and poor oversight by the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE).
The Tunisian Association for Integrity and Democracy (ATID) and the independent election observatory pointed out flaws in the registration process, violations at voting centres and observers’ exclusion from some counting procedures that they said raised questions about the process.
There were also concerns about the turnout rate, which was 20% lower than in 2014 polls.
Many, including ATID Vice-President Bassem Matar, pointed the finger at the ISIE, saying the body failed to effectively mobilise voters and crack down on violations.
“In every electoral occasion, we are witnessing an increasing abstention of voters. By saying that the turnout was acceptable, the electoral commission is beating around the bush to dodge the main questions and problems,” Matar said.
He specified serious irregularities leading up to and during the elections, including involuntary registration, the removal of some voters' names from the electoral register and last-minute changes in polling locations.
“The registration of 1.5 million new voters was for the most part not voluntary,” said Matar. “In ATID’s latest report, we mentioned the complaints of many people who denounced the presence of their names on the electoral register without them knowing, though the law stipulates that registration is voluntary.
“We also received complaints from many Tunisians who had their names removed from the electoral register.
"Many other Tunisians living abroad complained about a last-minute change of voting centres where they usually cast their votes, without the ISIE taking the pain to inform them in advance,” Matar added.
Though such violations and irregularities were reported to the electoral authority, little to no action was taken, observers said.
“We know that the ISIE probably won’t take the violations into serious consideration, estimating in the end that such violations did not affect the results... Whether the violations affect the process or not, we are asking the ISIE for more transparency and for rendering all violations public,” Matar said.
“On the day of the legislative elections in the country, we were not able to reach the ISIE or any of its members, starting from 8 in the morning, when we began receiving reports about violations in different voting centres. We witnessed the massive distribution of small clips, bearing lists’ numbers and names, in front of voting centres.”
“Some supporters of Ennahda and lists’ members, for example, were present in voting centres and reaching out to people, in total violation of the electoral law. In some cases, the ISIE intervened. In other cases, there was no action at all," he added.
Figures revealed by Tunisian electoral monitor Mourakiboun indicated that Ennahda Movement representatives were most prevalent on the ground, showing up in some 90% of polling centres. Matar, however, said his team was even prohibited from entering certain stations.
“We were not allowed access to some voting centres,” he said. “In two cases of violations, we were not able to document what was happening because our observers were aggressed.”
Similar concerns were voiced by Mourakiboun, which issued a statement condemning irregularities regarding ballot collection and general transparency.
Some civil society observers, it complained, “were not able to adequately follow the collection and counting process."
“We express our strong rejection of these policies, especially that we have alerted the ISIE staff on many electoral occasions concerning these issues,” said a statement by Mourakiboun.
In a more damning revelation, the watchdog organisation I-watch said Ennahda was the only party that had broken campaign finance laws in the parliamentary polls, exceeding the limit by 40% in the Tunis District 1.
Former ISIE President Sami Ben Slama warned that the flawed process meant Tunisia’s “whole democratic process is under threat.”
“ISIE as a committee has been infiltrated by some political actors. When you hire 70,000 volunteers and train them for only three days, how do you expect to scrutinise their performance later?” he asked on Tunisian television channel elhiwar ettounsi. “You send them to voting centres and there is no authority to observe their work.”
In Tunis’s southern suburb of Manouba, protests against perceived “electoral fraud” broke out. There were widespread complaints in Ben Arous, Kairouan, Monastir and Gafsa.
Electoral irregularities were not the only source of bad news on Election Day. Tunisians grew concerned after numerous individuals with criminal records and radical viewpoints were elected to parliament.
Among the likely future deputies are Mohammed Saleh Ltifi, who admitted to his past as a smuggler when he was 23 before becoming a businessman; Ridha Jaouadi, head of the far-right Islamist Al Karama coalition’s list in Sfax and Rached Khiari, founder of the pro-Islamist Essada website.
Khiari did not wait long after being told he had won a seat in parliament to display his extremist views. Speaking in front of the Municipal Theatre in Tunis, he called for the arrest of Tunisian businessman Kamel Letaif and the expulsion of the French Ambassador to Tunisia Olivier Poivre d’Arvor.
Jaouadi, who has been accused of inciting hatred and breaking fundraising laws, was dismissed from his post as imam and arrested in 2015 following a complaint filed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
The rise of figures such as Jaouadi and Khiari, coupled with the electoral irregularities, casts a dark cloud over the election season.
Ben Salem said international observers and the ISIE were determined to see the process succeed at “whatever cost to save what they believe is a democratic transition.”
“They want to preserve what they see as the future political stability in Tunisia and the unique model of democracy in the Arab world, even if this model is flawed," Ben Salem said.
"The post-election period will be challenging and marred by tensions and divisions. What happens next? That remains to be seen," she said.