Survey Reveals Illiterate Tunisians Plan to Participate in Upcoming Elections

Survey Reveals Illiterate Tunisians Plan to Participate in Upcoming Elections feature image

“The vote of an illiterate voter carries the same weight as that of the president of the Republic,” commented Chafik Sarsar, president of the High Independent Authority for Elections (ISIE), after the presentation of the results of the first-ever study of electoral participation of illiterate Tunisians.

According to official statistics, 1.7 million Tunisians are illiterate, or approximately 15.5 percent of the country’s population of 11 million. Illiterate voters constitute a significant electoral force, as 98 percent (1.65 million people) are of voting age. The goal of an International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ (IFES) quantitative survey conducted from December 2016 to January 2017 was to gain a better understanding of illiterate Tunisians’ levels of political participation and civic engagement and identify obstacles preventing or discouraging them from voting. This information will inform the design of outreach campaigns aimed at increasing illiterate Tunisians’ understanding of political and electoral processes, as well as more targeted voter information campaigns to encourage illiterate Tunisians to register and participate in elections.

The survey found that, overall, illiterate Tunisians maintain a negative view of the situation in Tunisia. Almost half of the survey respondents (47.1%) believe that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Illiterate Tunisians aged 18 to 34 are the most pessimistic, with 68.7 percent saying that Tunisia is moving in the wrong direction. In spite of this, the illiterate population remains more optimistic than the Tunisian population as a whole. Four in ten (40.8%) illiterate Tunisians expressed a positive opinion of the political situation, while 49.8 percent declared themselves to be "very dissatisfied" or "dissatisfied," whereas another survey conducted during the same period found that 73 percent of Tunisian citizens of voting age are similarly dissatisfied with the political situation.

The study also revealed that illiterate Tunisians are not well-informed about democratic or electoral processes. Seventy-nine percent of respondents confirmed that “politics are so complicated that [they] cannot understand what is going on.” Many respondents (44.6%) also say they are very disinterested in politics. In addition, 60.1 percent of respondents were unable to say what living in a democracy means to them. Finally, almost all respondents have no information or very little information about Tunisia’s upcoming municipal elections. An overwhelming majority (86.7%) do not even know whether these elections are regional elections, legislative elections, presidential elections or municipal elections. These figures underscore the serious need for targeted outreach to increase illiterate Tunisians’ knowledge and awareness of democratic processes and their civic rights and responsibilities, given that this population has too often been overlooked despite its demographic and electoral presence.

In spite of their overall negative opinion of the situation in Tunisia, their lack of interest in politics and their low level of information about the municipal elections, a majority of respondents plan to vote in the next election. While 27.7 percent of those surveyed say they are not on the voter list and 13.3 percent do not remember if they are, the overwhelming majority (81.6%) expressed their intention to register to vote in December. Eighty-one percent intend to participate in the next election, with nearly five out of ten respondents stating with certainty that they plan to vote. Illiterate Tunisians believe that they can exercise their right to vote freely and perceive voting as a means of influencing political decisions. This desire to register and participate more actively in public life should compel public authorities to expand their efforts to empower illiterate people to better understand the new democratic Tunisia.

This study was made possible by technical and financial support from the International Cooperation Division of the Swiss Embassy in Tunisia, the Ministry of Social Affairs, particularly the Directorate General of Social Promotion and the Department of Adult Education, and the ISIE. The survey was conducted by One to One for Research and Polling. Data was collected between December 10, 2016 and January 1, 2017, through face-to-face interviews in Arabic, from a sample size of 1,008 illiterate Tunisians aged 18 and older.

IFES was the first international organization to begin working on the intersection between elections and illiteracy in Tunisia. Since 2012, IFES has been cooperating with the Ministry of Social Affairs to increase illiterate Tunisians’ understanding of democratic processes through the creation of an educational briefcase that is used to teach illiterate adults about the key elements of elections, including how to vote, which was funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Ahead of the December 17, 2017 municipal elections, IFES is working to improve illiterate Tunisians’ understanding of elections and the decentralization process through targeted civic and voter education campaigns, interactive street theater performances and a traveling radio show. 

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