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Tunisia elections face unexpected obstacle: youth apathy

The fervor of Tunisia's youth-led revolution, which sparked subsequent uprisings in the region, has been surprisingly absent ahead of Tunisia's elections this weekend.

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Down the road at the Ennahda headquarters, Aymen Bayrek, a university student and activist who has worked to turn out his his peers for the party, agrees.

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"They say the political parties are not for them," he says, adding that he is one of only a few of his fellow youths who have moved from the streets to the campaign trail.

While it's impossible to predict just how many voters will come out to vote in Sunday's election, there are indications that apathy about Tunisia's democratic transition are more widespread than one would expect less than a year after a people's revolution. When voter registration opened earlier this summer, less than 20 percent of Tunisians registered by the initial Aug. 2 deadline, prompting the caretaker government to extend the deadline by several weeks. The numbers grew, but almost half of Tunisians of voting age chose not to register to vote.

The electoral commission amended the rules again, announcing that anyone with a national identity card would be able to case a ballot. "Tunisians were not keen on being registered," says Maria Espinosa, deputy to the European Union electoral observation mission. "So the [electoral commission] had to try other tricks simply for it to be as inclusive as possible."

Slow progress breeds apathy

The shift from impassioned street opposition to apparent disinterest may be attributable to the disappointment that has characterized the months since Mr. Ben Ali was toppled, says Adnen Hasnaoui, a human rights activist who helped coordinate protests in January.

Many of the grievances that brought the youths out into the streets – unemployment, corruption, and exclusion from political decisions – have continued unabated the past few months. The economy has actually contracted since Ben Ali left and bribes are still demanded at the police stations and and government bureaus. And the political scene has seen heated contests for power and influence.

"The youth were together [during the revolution]," he says, sitting in a cafe just a stone's throw from where the January protests took place. "But then they saw [politicians] competing for posts and influence in a way that wasn't civilized. And now they are asking, 'What has become of this [revolution]?' "

Difficulty getting the word out

Compounding this disillusionment are the logistical constraints of the campaigns. Candidates have a mere three weeks to make their case to the public – an amount of time that analysts say is simply too short in a country unfamiliar with democratic elections.

Seeking to level the playing field for candidates, Tunisia's electoral commission barred any spending on print, radio, and broadcast media advertisements. Posters are forbidden, and candidates were not allowed to give interviews to the press during the month leading up to Oct. 23. The only official exposure permitted is an official, three-minute presentation on television and one small poster that can be plastered in designated areas, alongside the posters of dozens of other candidates running in any given district. The rest of the campaigning has to be done at the grassroots levels, in meetings and by going door to door.

Not surprisingly, many voters may simply stay away from the polls for lack of knowledge about who to vote for, says Espinosa of the EU electoral observation mission.

"The campaign is very, very controlled what you can and cannot do, what you can and cannot say," says Mr. Masmoudi, the independent candidate. "This is a campaign. How am I going to become known to the people? ... It's a joke." He has spent the past three weeks traveling throughout the rural district in which he is running to meet as many of his constituents in person as he can.

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