Bill to grant Tunisian military right to vote elicits objections
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.