All eyes are now on the composition of Tunisia’s new transitional government. Its primary purpose is to prepare for democratic elections so that Tunisians can decide who should represent them in the long term. The makeup of the government is crucial: people must have confidence that it is preparing the elections in good faith.
Without such confidence there could be turmoil and unrest at every stage in the coming months. The preparation of genuinely democratic elections requires nothing less than a systematic overhaul of the country’s electoral laws and practices, which are deeply flawed after decades of dictatorship.
First, efforts must be made to create a level playing field for political contestants. The announcement on releasing political prisoners and lifting restrictions on press freedoms, human rights groups and political party registration is an important step forward. This must be effectively and speedily implemented. Freedom of speech and assembly must be fully respected so that people can freely express their opinions and organise political campaigns.
Discussions on electoral reforms must include a wide range of stakeholders to agree an improved framework to regulate the conduct of the elections. Given the urgency of the situation, the transitional government may be tempted to use the old electoral law or to proceed without consultation. But either of these steps is likely to undermine public and international trust in the integrity of the elections.
The opposition has already demanded the creation of an impartial body to supervise elections. It is right. Past elections were organised by the interior ministry which, although technically competent, was not impartial. A new election body must have wide powers, be broad-based, and command the confidence of political stakeholders and the wider public.
Given current time constraints, a new election body will not be able to develop the capacity to organise the elections. However, it can make all the major decisions and supervise implementation by the public administration, which has the necessary technical means to run elections. The 2007 transition elections in Mauritania were successfully conducted within such a framework.
An election body would need to look at the voter registers. While Tunisia has the capacity to establish a reliable register, there have been allegations that some groups of potential opposition supporters, such as young urban voters, were deliberately excluded from the lists. The accuracy of the existing lists should be carefully reviewed and the new register publicly displayed.
Candidates and parties should be given proper access to the media, in particular public channels, which should be committed to fair coverage. Generous free airtime should be provided so that new parties and candidates can present their platforms. Public campaign finance should be available to offset the likely financial advantages of those who were allied to the Ben Ali regime. Both campaign expenditure and media coverage should be carefully regulated, with the latter independently monitored.
Transparency is required in all aspects of the process and must be open to scrutiny by media, civil society and Tunisian and international election observers, as well as party representatives and candidates. Most important, the election body should conduct elections in an open and consultative manner. Election results should be immediately published in polling stations and posted on the internet.
Finally, a fair, accessible and timely process for adjudicating electoral disputes should be established. Again, this must command confidence among those participating in the elections and the wider public. Recently contested elections in Kenya, Haiti and Ivory Coast have demonstrated the price of getting this part of the electoral process wrong.
The key issue now is how fast all these things can be achieved. According to the constitution, the presidential election needs to take place by 15 March at the latest. This would leave precious little time to truly reform the electoral framework and provide parties and candidates with a chance to become known to the electorate. The alternative is to ignore the constitution and set a later election day. For the stability of the country, it will be important to have a degree of consensus on whatever decision is made.
In addition to the general framework, a specific provision requiring a presidential candidate to have the support of 30 members of the lower house of parliament or municipal mayors, which would give representatives of the old regime a say in determining who can stand, must be abolished before the presidential election is held.
As far as parliamentary elections are concerned, there is no deadline to be met. When deciding on the timing, competing considerations come into play. On the one hand, the momentum for change can get lost if elections are not held soon. On the other, they should not be held before the flaws in the electoral framework have been fixed.
The complicating factor with parliamentary elections is that, beyond arrangements to encourage a level playing field, the electoral system must be changed. Currently it ensures that one party will gain hegemonic control of parliament. In the past, parties of the legal opposition were merely allowed quotas of seats to create a democratic facade.
Given decades of repression, a real political-party spectrum has yet to emerge. A new election system should allow independent candidates to compete. It should also be designed to produce relatively proportional results so that all new political groupings have a chance of winning representation.
The elections will bring Tunisia to a crossroads. If they are open and credible, they will create the confidence and legitimacy required for genuine long-term stability. But if Tunisians view the elections as no more than political window-dressing, the country is bound to see more trouble and a “once in a generation” opportunity to establish a democracy will be wasted.