Elections that shape identity, not just shift power

Civic unity keeps rising in two Arab democracies, Iraq and Tunisia, that only recently were riven by religious divides. Just look at Tunisia’s presidential election with 26 candidates.

People watch a televised debate between presidential candidates at a cafe in central Tunis, Tunisia, Sept. 7.

For the second time since its revolution in the 2011 Arab Spring, Tunisia will elect a new president Sunday. In the Arab world, which is mostly autocratic or chaotic, that alone is quite a feat. Tunisia’s success is matched only by Iraq’s progress in democracy since 2003.

Yet what stands out in both countries is a parallel rise in national identity. Elections have led people to unite around a shared stake in deciding their civic interests in a civil way rather than fighting over differences within Islam or the role of Islam in governance. Given an opportunity to vote for leaders making pledges on issues from security to corruption, voters take on a secular, patriotic solidarity, polls show.

Tunisia’s opportunity to further shape its identity is reflected in the number of presidential candidates: 26. The diversity on the list – populist TV tycoon, feminist, Islamist, technocrat, free-market advocate, leftist, and so on – gives voters ample freedom to choose the country’s future. In addition, the candidates held three debates, an unheard-of public event in the Arab world.

In the 2014 legislative elections, political battle lines were largely between supporters of secular rule and the Islamist party of Ennahda. Since then Ennahda has rebranded itself as a “Muslim democratic party.” One reason is that Tunisians care more about jobs and services than a government imposing Islam on a society with wide social divisions.

In Iraq, too, since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the overthrow of an Islamic State enclave in 2016, the country has tried to move away from sectarian battles. In an election last year, which resulted in the fourth successive peaceful transfer of power, issues of everyday governance were more important than religion divides.

Remarkably, polls show the minority Sunnis have more trust in a largely Shiite-led government than do Shiites. The percentage of Sunnis who identify first as “Iraqi” keeps rising. And a large majority of both Sunni and Shiites say they feel safe in their neighborhoods and that it is better to separate religion from politics, according to polling by the Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies.

People in both Tunisia and Iraq still wear many “hats” – Muslim, Arab, tribal, regional, etc. Yet by uniting around a democratic process to solve problems together, they create a bond that defines a wider identity, one based on civic ideals. As messy as their democracy may be, they are trying to see themselves in the greater good.

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