The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Tunisia's election

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Tunisia is gearing up for another one of its farcical elections on October 25, in which Count Dracula Ben Ali is set to win something between 95% and 99% of the vote yet again. Above is Ben Ali's program, which begins with the now 22-year-old promise for political reform:

We have established the Change as a continuous process of reform through which we have established the rule of law and individual and public freedoms. We invariably rely, now and in the future, on our people’s maturity and worthiness of an advanced political life. Our choices have always reflected the aspirations and determination of the men and women of our people. We have benefited from the experiences of other countries, so as to ensure the continued progress of Tunisia on the path of democracy, pluralism, and human rights, away from any regression or setbacks. All those principles and choices are now a concrete reality protected by the Constitution and the laws which we have amended so that they reach the level of the most advanced countries. We are promoting this reality at each stage, by enhancing the values of citizenship and participation, and by further consolidating pluralism in public life, in constitutional institutions, in consultative bodies and structures, and in the media. We are determined, during the coming stage, to further promote this reality, so as to lay a propitious ground for the future we seek for Tunisia, as a consecration of the aspirations of our people and its young generations.

Yet you will almost never hear about Tunisia's creepy dictatorship in most of the Western media, and in France where they do talk about it, half the press has either been paid to support the regime, or appears to buy its anti-Islamist justifications for what is essentially a mafia state.

FA5FAAC3-4D1A-4E0E-969C-81F535A494F2.jpgI'm looking forward in this regard to reading shock-journalists Nicolas Beau and Catherine Graciet's "La Regente De Carthage", about how former hair stylist Leila Trabelsi married Ben Ali and established a business and crime empire. And, ultimately, may very well decide who will succeed her husband.

Update: I think I linked to it before, but it's worth reading Hamadi Redissi's ARB article on the elections to provide some context:

Regarding the presidential race, a constitutional amendment approved in July 2008 stipulates that the head of any political party who has been in his position at least two years may run. (Before 2008, the constitution required any candidate to obtain endorsements from 30 members of the Chamber of Deputies or mayors, a goal that was practically unattainable for opposition candidates.) For this year’s election, the two-year stipulation rules out all but three candidates aside from Ben Ali. The most important is Ahmed Brahim, Secretary General of the Movement for Renewal, who is trying to run a serious campaign. The other two candidates--Mohamed Bouchiha of the Popular Unity Party and Ahmed Inoubli of the Unionist Democratic Union--are only in the elections to show (according to them) their support for the democratic course. The Constitutional Court rejected the candidacy of Mustafa Ben Jaafar of the Democratic Forum for Freedoms and Labor on September 27 because it ruled that he did not meet the two year rule.

The current electoral model, which has been in place since the electoral code was issued in 1969, is now in the spotlight. This system transforms political competition into an administrative process wherein the Interior Ministry pulls all the strings throughout all stages of the elections, from registering voters to announcing the results. Unlike in liberal electoral systems, the legal code does not even explicitly outlaw electoral fraud. The ruling party candidate also is free to exploit the government monopoly over the audio-visual media, although a recent change in law requires the Supreme Council for Communications to preview all campaign ads. An opposition proposal to create an independent electoral commission fell on deaf ears. Ben Ali created a commission during his 1999 run for re-election, but its neutrality is compromised by the fact that its members are presidential appointees and its mandate limited to making observations rather than decisions.

Redissi concludes:

Thus it is inevitable that Ben Ali will win another term, but that does not mean the elections are without significance. First, a strong desire for greater freedom and for real rather than cosmetic change might allow the opposition to push back red lines and expand the margins of freedom. Second, as is the case in other Arab republics, Tunisia is running up against complications with succession at the top of the power pyramid. The Tunisian constitution does not allow the 73-year-old Ben Ali to run again for the presidency after this term, the maximum age being 75 years. This obstacle will be pivotal in reshuffling the political deck in Tunisia, raising the question of whether the regime will succeed once again in reinventing itself.

Since Redissi is a professor at the University of Tunis and presumably has to pull his punches, reading between the lines it appears obvious that Ben Ali would once again change the constitution to be able to run again if necessary. But the article illustrates very well the general model of neo-authoritarianism that dominates among the Arab republics, in which elections are valued as a token form of democracy largely devoid of any real meaning (even if at times they can provide traction for genuine democrats and opposition forces).