A voter proudly displays his ink-stained finger following elections in Tunisia, October 2011.

To prevent repeat voting, voters had to dip their index finger in semi-permanent ink; these ink-stains became a symbol of optimism and pride.

Tunisian elections: a student's perspective

Editor’s note

This article was written by Harriet Baker, a third year Politics student, and originally published in Exeposé on 7 November 2011. Harriet travelled to Tunisia with 12 other students and two PhD candidates on a study trip led by Dr Larbi Sadiki.

It was clear to see on our trip, how life for Tunisians has already changed since the rule of Ben Ali. The mood seemed, at our time of visiting, to be one of cautious optimism. However, what is not clear is the path that Tunisia is to take from here.

The air of enthusiasm was apparent everywhere in Tunis it seemed; even taxi drivers were eager for our views on the elections, and told us of their optimism for the future. It was incredible to see people so politically engaged; though perhaps not surprising when it would have been unthinkable to talk about politics so openly in the previous regime.

Al-Nahda, a moderate Islamist party which was banned under Ben Ali, gained over 41% of the vote, and 90 of the 217 seats in the assembly that will write a new constitution. We talked to some representatives of the party in Sousse, who were keen that we should understand the party’s clear and reasonable points made in their manifesto and how they will be incorporated in their policies. Indeed, they had even brought along copies translated into English, as well as leaflets and stickers, so that we could ask detailed questions. Their aim to be seen as moderate and fair was clear to see, and they expressed their pleasure at being able to talk to young people from Britain about their political views. They knew exactly what they wanted to say and how to say it, perhaps because of their desire to be seen from an international perspective to be legitimate. One question that we - as observers of the new democracy in the Middle East - were keen to ask, was how democracy can work in line with Islam. Their reply was that democracy comes from within Islam, and reiterated their belief in checks on government and civil liberties.

There is certainly unease about Al-Nahda’s victory. Though their manifesto outlines very moderate policies, many express concerns that they will be either pressured into adopting a more conservative agenda or will shift their manifesto once in power.

We met with Dr Amor Boubakri, Professor of Law at the University of Sousse, who eagerly showed us around Sousse Electoral Observatory. Immediately apparent to us was an air of excitement, and when we spoke to some of the workers there, they shared their feelings of confidence for the elections ahead, as well as their great pride for Tunisia for being the first in the Arab Spring countries to take this significant step.

On the day of the election itself, our group visited a busy polling station in Sousse. Those who had just voted were glad to share the experience, one simply stating "we are free now". An elderly man told us with a smile that he was unable to read or write, but such was his joy at being allowed a vote that he had simply chosen, at random, a candidate on the list. This seems to epitomise the sheer emotion the Tunisians feel about these elections.

Throughout the day we saw the joy and celebration of Tunisians, with young people holding their ink-stained fingers out of their cars as they drove down the streets, waving the Tunisian flag and beeping their horns.

Their enthusiasm is clearly reflected in the exceptionally high national turnout, which averaged over 71%. In one place, we heard that people had queued for over four hours at a polling station.

In Sidi Bouzid, we met a representative from the Popular Manifesto party, who spoke of their commitment to practical solutions to solve their country’s problems rather than the application of a strict ideology. However, a few days after the election, we heard that they had lost their seats due to “financial irregularities” being discovered. In this town, where the revolution originated, unemployment is overwhelmingly high, which was clearly evident from the number of young males sitting outside on chairs simply watching time pass by. The contrast between here and Tunis could not have been more obvious – the people here need jobs and local development, and are less concerned with democracy in itself. Many areas in the south seem to have been forgotten, and their long-term poverty will need to be tackled by any new government.

Whatever the outcome in Tunisia, and whatever form the government takes when coalition talks have finished, it is clear that these elections are a milestone in Tunisia’s history. It is hard to tell the extent of how free and fair they were, but nonetheless what is clear is that Tunisians at large are convinced that the country has taken its first crucial step towards the creation of a lasting democracy.

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