Bill to grant Tunisian military right to vote elicits objections

Sunday 25/09/2016
A December 2014 file picture shows a Tunisian soldier standing guard while employees from the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) move ballot boxes from a military vehicle during presidential elections.

Tunis - Tunisia’s military, widely hailed for maintaining a non-political role even when political power might have been easy to grab during the ouster of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, would lose its “exceptional” role if the parliament were to grant sol­diers voting rights, former generals and politicians said.

A measure regarding voting rights of members of the military and government security forces has been included in an election law to be considered by the Tuni­sian parliament.

Security experts, former military officers, including ex-presidential guards chief Ali Seriati and influen­tial political figures, among them former prime ministers Hedi Bac­couche and Rachid Sfar, gathered at a conference organised by the National Defence Institute Asso­ciation to debate the issue.

Giving soldiers the right to vote would bring infighting into mili­tary ranks and threaten army unity and discipline when the armed forces are struggling with a jihad­ist insurgency near the border with Algeria and the threat of the Is­lamic State’s spillover from Libya, some of the participants said.

Eight former generals and three former colonels, backed by five civic associations and 15 promi­nent personalities, including for­mer ministers, weighed in with a rare petition printed in Tunisia’s main newspapers calling for the rejection of the legislative move.

“[Participating in elections] will weaken the spirit of discipline within the armed forces and cohe­sion and unity around their leader­ship,” said the petition.

Active soldiers and officers do not speak publicly about political matters in what is called La Grande Muette.

Those who seek to allow the military into politicking cite the exceptionalism of the military to cure politics and elections from corruption and upgrade the perfor­mance of political elites who have yet to find a way to pull Tunisia out of crisis.

If the members of the parliament were to stick to the letter and spirit of the constitution, the military would join the political foray, law experts said.

Militaries in the Arab world have staged 45 coups but Tunisia’s army has steered clear of the political landscape since the country won independence 60 years ago. The conventional wisdom is that Tu­nisians are of the opinion that the military’s refusal to fire on civil­ians led Ben Ali to leave the coun­try, making the political change relatively peaceful.

The military’s nonpartisan mindset is the result of policies en­acted under Ben Ali and his prede­cessor Habib Bourguiba. The two leaders focused on spending less on the military and more on social and economic development while keeping a balanced diplomacy that reduced threats to the country.

Due to its traditional separation from politics, the Tunisian military enjoys popular credibility and le­gitimacy, especially compared to most other institutions. Tunisia’s armed forces have played a less overt role in political and econom­ic rebuilding in the past five years than has the Egyptian military.

Mohamed Meddeb, a 64-year-old former general, said the mili­tary’s inherent mission was special and should not become part of Tu­nisia’s political process.

He cited the repercussions po­litical infighting would have on military discipline and mindset and questioned the feasibility of having elections for soldiers based in mountainous or desert areas

“There are risks from involv­ing the military in elections. The country has enough problems and we have no interest in creating an­other one,” Meddeb said.

However, Salsabil Klibi, a consti­tutional law expert at Tunis Uni­versity, said the bill to allow sol­diers to vote should be approved because the constitution gives the right to vote and run for office to all citizens of a certain age, including members of the military.

“According to the fundamental law all citizens are equal and enjoy the same rights. There is no excep­tion for any groups of the popula­tion and there are no limits,” she said.

But Meddeb argued that “the exceptional situation of the mili­tary and the nature of its missions [should] exclude the military from elections”.

“The military has a very special mission: Destroy the enemy. This mission tops everything else. It has priority above all other rights,” he said.

Meddeb said consideration of voting rights in the military should be “revisited in four or five decades when the country will, hopefully, be more stable and prosperous”.

He questioned whether mem­bers of parliament understand the implications of the issue. “I’m worried that parliament members who have not spent one night at a military barracks will make their decision based on abstract think­ing without taking into account all the complexities of the reality on the ground,” he said.

Baccouche, backing the mili­tary’s right to vote, said: “The mili­tary has the skills and the nation­alist energy to impact positively elections and politics where mon­ey buying of votes and corruption exist and patriotic military men do not accept that.”

Political groups in the parlia­ment are said to be undecided on the bill after 68 hours of debates since February, with Ennahda Is­lamists opposing the bill and anti- Islamists backing it.