A Comprehensive Approach to Supporting Elections in Tunisia

Publication Date: 
20 Nov 2014

News Type:

By Adam Gallagher, Editor and Writer

On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself in flammable liquid and self-immolated, sparking a revolution that would not only change the political trajectory of his country, but the Arab world. After years of suffering humiliating and degrading treatment by municipal officers, unable to afford the bribes they demanded, Bouazizi acted out of desperation and catalyzed protests throughout Tunisia – and eventually much of the Arab world – centered on a host of social and political issues. Less than a month later, on January 14, 2011, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali abdicated power and fled to Saudi Arabia. Since 2011, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has worked with the Tunisian election commission, various components of the Tunisian Government, political parties and civil society to help secure the fundamental human and political rights that so many Tunisians earnestly and rightly demanded.

IFES began its operation in Tunisia soon after Ben Ali’s flight. “One of the main objectives of IFES’ efforts in Tunisia was to create a strong partnership with different stakeholders, not only to address technical aspects of election administration, but also to address the broader context of elections and consolidate democracy in Tunisia,” explained IFES Tunisia Country Director Nicolas Kaczorowski. IFES’ main interlocutor has been the nascent High Independent Authority on Elections (Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Élections [ISIE]), Tunisia’s election commission. In order to provide coherent and coordinated advice and support, IFES has worked closely with partners like the European Union (EU) and the United Nations Development Progamme (UNDP).

The ISIE was officially established in December 2012 by Organic Law No. 2012‐23, replacing the interim election commission established to elect members of the constitutional drafting body, the National Constituency Assembly (NCA). On January 8, 2014, the NCA elected nine members of the ISIE’s Board of Commissioners, with Dr. Chafik Sarsar – a renowned constitutional law professor – elected as President. The election commission was immediately faced with the daunting task of organizing three vitally important rounds of elections in less than a year, with parliamentary elections on October 26, first-round presidential elections on November 23, and a potential run-off presidential vote. At the same time, the ISIE needed to build a strong, efficient, professional electoral administrative body, as the ISIE lacked institutional expertise and experience.

A key area of focus has been training poll workers through a cascade method. In other words, IFES has trained the trainers, so that they can then provide professional and efficient training for other members of the ISIE. On September 30 and October 1, 2014, in partnership with the EU, the UNDP and the ISIE, IFES organized a training of over 300 master trainers on procedures for operating polling stations in the parliamentary elections on October 26. This important capacity-building effort was the first step in trainings that ultimately led to 50,000 poll workers being trained in the professional and effective conduct of elections. IFES also assisted the ISIE in developing a Polling and Counting Manual and printed over 40,000 copies to be distributed to poll workers. Speaking at the opening of the training, ISIE President Sarsar asserted that “this training is the backbone of the success of the elections.” IFES also assisted the ISIE during the voter registration process for the parliamentary and presidential elections, with the development and dissemination of a Voter Registration Training Manual.

IFES has also worked extensively with the ISIE on a variety of internal and external communications matters. The work on internal communications has been a vital effort to ensure uniform electoral procedures throughout all electoral districts. External communications, however, has been a critical focal point for IFES. Indeed, IFES, along with its ISIE partners, expended a significant amount of effort in conceptualizing and creating a Media Center for the October and November elections. The Media Center serves as a platform for the ISIE to communicate election related information to citizens, journalists, international organizations and other relevant stakeholders. It also brings transparency and credibility to the election process.

Campaign finance is always a controversial topic in any country, and Tunisia is no exception. Over the last two years, IFES has been engaged with both the ISIE and the Court of Accounts, the body responsible for regulating campaign finance. In partnership with the Court, IFES helped to train the 120 judges responsible for campaign finance based on a jointly-developed manual of procedures and international best practices. The ISIE also deployed nearly 1,000 controllers throughout the country to control campaign activities and ensure that political parties abide by campaign finance rules. IFES provided a comprehensive training for the ISIE campaign finance controllers.

The necessary work needed to conduct credible and transparent elections requires a comprehensive approach to all phases of the electoral cycle: pre-election, the election period and post-election. IFES’ work in Tunisia demonstrates the importance of employing this methodology. Despite the numerous challenges facing Tunisia ahead of the October parliamentary elections, international observers have hailed the elections as free and fair. With over 10,000 candidates and nearly 1,500 candidate lists, the parliamentary elections were characterized by a remarkable pluralism and a competitive, but respectful campaign environment. The former ruling party, the moderate Islamist party known as Ennahda, clearly recognized the legitimacy of the October 26 vote; its leader Rachid Ghannouchi called his counterpart Beji Caid Essebsi of the winning party, Nida Tounnes, to congratulate him; a resounding sign of the political maturity of Tunisia. What is more, voter turnout in country neared 70 percent.

The 2014 elections mark the end of the first phase of the transitional period after the fall of Ben Ali. With the ratification of a new constitution and the elections for the Parliament and President all in 2014, new permanent institutions are being created in Tunisia. “Tunisians rose to the challenge and organized successful elections, ushering in a new era,” said Kaczorowski. Building on this success, IFES will continue to support the right of Tunisians to vote and have a say in how they are governed.