Tunisia hopes landmark polls will anchor stability

2014-10-24 09:32


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Tunis - Tunisia has come through the Arab Spring better than other Arab countries, but now elections with an uncertain outcome lie ahead as the country seeks to find a path between chaos and dictatorship.

Numbered grid patterns are painted on walls all over Tunisia, inviting political parties contesting Sunday's parliamentary elections to stick up their posters.

Some of the posters have been torn down, but many of the grids remain empty. Foreign observers may see the pending elections - a presidential poll is set for the end of November - as another major step toward democracy, but many Tunisians remain sceptical.

"There is a great deal of insecurity. Many still do not know whom they intend to vote for," says Michael Ayari, an analyst from the International Crisis Group which offers political consultancy in regions of conflict.

The Islamist Ennahda and the secular Nidaa Tounes are thought to have the most support. But there is increasing concern at the possibility of a low turnout from the electorate of five million.

Tough decisions

Around 50% voted in 2011, when hopes for a better future were still high. Should the figure drop below that, the next government could lack the legitimacy necessary to make tough decisions.

By comparison with other countries emerging from the Arab Spring, Tunisia is in a relatively good position. The North African country has not slid into chaos like Syria or Yemen, or its neighbour Libya.

Where a general has taken over in Egypt, in Tunisia democracy is making progress. A new and modern constitution has been in force since the beginning of the year.

The parliamentary elections on Sunday and the presidential poll on 23 November are intended to complete the democratic process four years after Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who ran the country from the late 1980s, was toppled from power early in 2011.

This political progress has not been matched on the economic front. At least 15% of Tunisians continue to live below the poverty threshold.

And religious zealots are finding supporters among many who have lost hope, for example in the poor quarters on the outskirts of Tunis like Al-Nasim, where the injunction "Pray!" is scrawled on many walls.

Economic crisis

The houses here look neglected. There is a large mosque painted white and a Koran school.

"Many here are starting to wear their beards long and taking to robes in the Afghan style," says Abdul Rasak Aekeche, who runs the mosque's finances. "It's a kind of fashion at the moment."

A few months ago a weapons cache was uncovered, and not far away the black flag of Islamic militancy has been meticulously painted on a wall.

Along with the economic crisis, terrorism is the theme that Tunisians discuss most. Newspapers report daily on the dangers posed by the hundreds reported to be returning home from Syria where they are said to have been fighting for the Islamic State.

The fighting in Libya is threatening to spill over into Tunisia, and terrorists based in Algeria have carried out several attacks on Tunisian security forces. The interior minister narrowly escaped an attempted assassination in May.

Renewed political deadlock

Opponents of the Islamists accuse Ennahda, which emerged from the October 2011 elections as the largest political force, of profiting from this development during its period in office.

The murder of two leftist opposition politicians, thought to have been carried out by radical Islamists, led to a political crisis and sparked mass demonstrations. This prompted Ennahda to hand power to a transitional government of independent technocrats.

If Ennahda gains a relative majority of mandates in the 217-member parliament, the quest for a coalition partner is likely to prove difficult and could lead to renewed political deadlock.

It is often said of Tunisians that when there appears to be no way out of difficulties, they manage to achieve a turnaround by combining forces. Many are looking to this character trait to see them through this time round.

Read more on:    north africa  |  tunisia elections 2014

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