THE biggest test of Tunisia's slow democratization process will come not the day of national elections next March, but in the months remaining before the first parliamentary elections in five years.
``Democracy means nothing if the people aren't behind it, but distrust and indifference toward the process are widespread,'' says Mohamed Moaada, president of Tunisia's Social Democratic Movement (MDS), considered the country's strongest opposition party. ``We have a few months to show voters that something's changed, [that] this time it's serious.''
One of the principal embarrassments of this small country is that even as it has vaunted the values of democracy over recent years, its own parliament remains a single-party chamber.
In the last elections in 1989, opposition parties boycotted the vote at the last minute when they concluded the system guaranteed their defeat. Since then, any opposition to the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) has been weak and divided.
With the national assembly acting as a rubber stamp for the policies of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the legislative branch's corrective, balancing function has been nonexistent.
The Ben Ali regime says it wants to change that. Observers close to Mr. Ben Ali say he sincerely believes development will stall without a democratic process involving all Tunisia's people.
But to do so, it will need the participation of a public that has been nurtured on the all-powerful, centralized state.
The government has approved a change in the electoral law to a guaranteed-majority proportional system that will virtually guarantee an opposition presence in the next parliament - though under the government's own strict terms.
``We want to open the door to recognized parties that share the same model of society and the same principles,'' says Justice Minister Sadok Chaabane, ``while closing the door to political extremists.''
The new system will guarantee a working majority of parliament's 141 seats to the top vote-getting party - sure to be the RCD. But a certain number of seats will be reserved for other parties, based on national results.
That is an important element in the government's policy of marginalizing Islamist candidates, who have run as independents. ``Since independents by definition are running alone, they cannot be added together to give a national score,'' says Mr. Chaabane. ``It's a way of favoring opposition parties over independents who are often extremists, and usually fundamentalists.''
Still, the public remains to be convinced that having a legislative opposition matters. ``There's enough arguing in the world. Why vote to create more?'' says one man selling dates in a central Tunis market. ``Maybe things work better the way they are now.''
Changing such thinking is something only the opposition can do, some observers note. ``The opposition is mainly made up of intellectuals, and it's not at all clear they have a popular base,'' says Rachid Driss, director of the Tunisian Association of International Studies. ``It's up to them to create an impact.''
One of the opposition's major challenges, Mr. Driss adds, is that Ben Ali embraced their central issues - democratization, human rights, equitable economic development - when he came to power in 1987. Another is that the opposition, essentially on the left, has suffered the same disorientation as European left-wing parties with communism's collapse and disillusion with the socialist model.
``People ask us the same question they ask in Europe, `Where is the right, and where is the left?' '' says Mr. Moaada. ``We have to show people that ... we in the opposition still have some differences in approach.''
At the other end of the spectrum, the small Party of Social Progress recommends a quicker pace to the privatization process.
``We see our economic and political development as intertwined, and progress on both is too slow,'' says Hosni Hammami, the party's assistant general secretary.
The country's new electoral law is touted as a ``gift'' to the opposition, says Mr. Hammami, ``but it's ridiculous and actually dangerous because it risks legally marginalizing the opposition. It's still the administration keeping careful control of everything,'' he says.
Moaada agrees the opposition will have trouble playing its proper role as long as a state apparatus intertwined with the RCD sees any change as a threat to its existence. His party's campaign staff is regularly hassled by police, he says.
``How can you expect the public to respond to us when the police considers our activity suspect?'' says Hammami.
``Tunisia is a confident and forward-moving country. When it comes to democratization, we should be able to do better.''