Women set to play key role in Tunisian presidential elections

Despite the presence of female presidential candidates, women remain under-represented in positions of power in Tunisia.
Saturday 24/08/2019
A 2018 file picture shows Tunisians chanting slogans during a demonstration to demand equal inheritance rights between men and women in Tunis. (AFP)
For the cosolidation of rights. A 2018 file picture shows Tunisians chanting slogans during a demonstration to demand equal inheritance rights between men and women in Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s presidential election season is not yet officially under way but voters are already scrutinising candidates’ platforms and their commitment to representing the electorate.

Out of 7,081,307 registered voters in the country, some 1.5 million will be casting ballots for the first time. These new voters, data released by the Independent High Authority for Elections indicate, are disproportionately women and youth, meaning these two groups will likely play an outsized role in determining Tunisia’s future.

Tunisian women will be an important voting bloc to watch, particularly if the election goes to a second round, as expected. During Tunisia’s presidential election in 2014, women were decisive in placing Beji Caid Essebsi in power. He won 61% of the female vote, compared to 39% for his opponent Moncef Marzouki.

This time, however, there are clear divisions among Tunisian women that will add a new dimension to the electoral landscape, Tunisian experts and political analysts said.

“This election season, there is division within the female electoral mass, mainly due to women’s disappointment following the elections of 2014,” said Sana Ghenima, president of the civil society group Femmes et Leadership (Women and Leadership) and spokeswoman for the electoral campaign of presidential candidate Abdelkrim Zbidi.

“Currently, we are working to ensure that dispersion does not become the major cause for a possible failure of progressive candidates,” she said.

Iqbal Gharbi, a professor at Zeitouna University, agreed that women “do not constitute a unified mass,” saying: “Each of them will vote according to her political and social conviction, her personal background and her cultural and material capital.”

To mobilise women voters, Ghenima said, candidates must make “pragmatic arguments” that appeal to both women and their children. She said she was confident that “women will vote responsibly and civilly.”

Despite persistent challenges, Tunisia has been a pioneer for women’s rights in the region. Today, more than 60 years after the enact­ment of its visionary Code of Personal Status, Tunisian women enjoy social freedoms and legal rights and protections that are rare in other Arab countries.

But still facing resistance from conservative forces in the country, women are pressing ahead to achieve full equality.

“Democracy can only be egalitarian,” Gharbi said. “It is fundamental that women enjoy full citizenship, in law and in the face of the law. Today, the international community sees women’s rights as an integral part of human rights, indivisible and universal. The Tunisia we aspire for can only be liberal, plural and secularised.”

Since the 2011 uprising in the country, Tunisian women have increasingly taken their struggle to the political arena, hoping to secure more gains.

This struggle, Gharbi said, has been carried on by a long history of female figures that form the country’s “collective unconscious,” such as “Elissa – Dido, the founder of Carthage and Kahina, an emblematic figure of the Berber resistance.

This legacy of female empowerment continued right up to the Tunisian revolution, she said, in which “women played a decisive role,” including by joining “social movements, demonstrations, disseminating on social platforms the models of resistance and organising marches and rallies of solidarity.”

Tunisian women gained the right to vote in 1957, one year after the country’s independence. Two years later, they began to hold key positions in local, regional and national institutions, as well as in government and parliament.

In 1999, Tunisia introduced quotas for women in electoral lists — although this only became legally binding in 2011. In 2014, Emna Mansour Karoui and Kalthoum Kennou became the first Tunisian women to run for president since the proclamation of the republic. This year, those two women are entering the parliamentary race.

There are two females running in the presidential race: Abir Moussi, leader of the anti-Islamist Free Destourian Party, and Selma Elloumi Rekik, leader of Al Amal party.

Rekik, who said she is open to withdrawing from the race if centrist parties agree on a candidate to represent their camp, voiced support for a draft law on equality of inheritance, a bill proposed by Caid Essebsi to ensure women are allotted the same inheritance rights as their male counterparts.

Moussi expressed reservations about the draft law, claiming that the recommendation for equal inheritance in the report of the Commission on Individual Liberties and Equality could allocate some inheritance to children born outside of marriage and legislate for the rebellion of the individual against social norms.

As Tunisian women begin evaluating candidates in the crowded field, Gharbi said, they will likely be drawn to leaders “whose political programmes will consolidate the legal and social achievements of women and whose project of society will embody their dreams of freedom and total equality.”

“The notion of parity is essential for the young Tunisian democracy, not only in terms of principles, but because a democracy that does not represent the entire society is deficient. Parity is an ideal that must be pursued,” Gharbi said.

Despite the presence of female presidential candidates, women remain under-represented in positions of power in Tunisia.

While Tunisia is likely to see high voter participation in the upcoming elections, there are increasing calls for a sanction vote to punish the ruling class.

Gharbi said: “A sanction vote is, in a modern representative democracy, a punitive vote, intended to express people’s discontent at the performance of political leaders. In Tunisia, it is a danger for our nascent democracy. To mitigate the sanction vote and creeping absenteeism, we should focus on education. We must motivate, explain to citizens the high stakes of democracy and the complexity of the state’s affairs.”

The first round of Tunisia’s presidential election is to take place September 15, with a possible second round November 3.

The election was moved forward following the death in July of Caid Essebsi, who in 2014 was the first democratically elected president in Tunisia’s modern history.