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.

Amine Landoulsi/AP
Islamic Ennahda party supporters dance during a rally in Le Kram, near Tunis, Tunisia, Thursday. Tunisia's landmark election this weekend for a constitutional body will determine the future of this North African nation which overthrew its longtime dictator in January.

From their six-month-old office just north of central Tunis, members of the Ennahda party, officially illegal until last March, are scurrying about with cellphones glued to their ears. Men and women in suits enter and exit through the front door at rapid pace and adrenaline permeates the lobby and waiting rooms.

The moderate Islamist party has less than a week to convince Tunisians to vote for its candidates when they head to the polls in the country's first vote since a revolution toppled former President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14. Across this country of 10 million, the urgency of reaching out to voters is palpable. More than 1,400 candidates are running for a mere 218 seats in a constituent assembly that will draft a new constitution and shape its much-anticipated transition to democracy. More than 60 parties are fielding candidates, in addition to a plethora of independents.

Yet much of the activity in political offices these days isn't so much about convincing the electorate to vote for a particular candidate as it is to simply ensure that Tunisians show up to the polls on Oct. 23. Turnout will be the key to winning influence in Tunisia's future, and signs of what analysts and political parties say is voter apathy, particularly among the youth, suggests that it may be lower than expected.

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Despite a January revolution that brought tens of thousands to the streets, a spring of ongoing protests that transcended the country's usual regional and economic disparities, and a summer of heated demonstrations between rival political camps, there is real concern about low voter turnout. Ironically, it is the youth – the same young men and women who took to the streets – who sound most ambivalent about Sunday's election.

"I have found a lot of apathy among the young people ... 'we don't want to vote,' they say, 'we don't believe in the elections,' " say Radwan Masmoudi, an independent candidate and founder of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, D.C. , which recently opened an office in Tunis. "This is the most crucial and important part of the population. They all shout, we are the revolutionaries, we created the revolution! But then they don't see their role to build the new democracy."

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.

"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.

Islamic parties join the fray

Electoral turnout is always important, but the stakes are particularly high in Tunisia, where the political landscape has been transformed since January. Islamic parties, long outlawed under Ben Ali, have returned to the scene, more than doubling the size of the traditional opposition.

The field of anti-Ben Ali activists in Tunisia used to be dominated by left-wing Communists and unionists, but the more conservative religious wing now carries considerable political heft. Unlike the traditional leftist parties, many of these Islamists are united under one umbrella: Ennahada, which stands to carry about 30 percent of the electorate. Polling conducted this summer (such polls have been forbidden since campaigning officially began in October) indicates that no other party will garner more than a fifth of the votes.

Both Ennahada and the more left-leaning parties understand the stakes of the elections ahead, which will literally shape Tunisia's future. In the final days before the contest, they are moving full force to convince their supporters to make their voice heard. Ennahada has held near-daily rallies and conferences throughout the country, as have candidates for more secular parties.

"Everyone’s going to be watching closely to see how the vote falls down between three camps: Islamist, far left secular, and centrist," says Christopher Alexander, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina and author of "Tunisia: Stability and Reform in the Modern Maghreb."

Late, but not no-shows

Early indications could prove false. It wouldn't be the first time that Tunisia's people surprised the world by coming out in force. "[Many Tunisians] weren't interested in the campaign, but they are very interested in the elections," says Khaled Houssein, a project manager at the Center for Arab Women's Training and Research, who spent the last week touring rural Tunisia and speaking with voters. "They weren't interested in the campaign because they don't want to listen to promises. They want to see actions."

Mr. Hasnaoui, the human rights activist, argues that the lack of youth participation in parties is not representative of whether they will actually vote.

"The day of elections, they will change their opinion," he says, noting that it was only a small number of committed men and women who organized and inspired protesters to the streets back in January. "I don't worry about the majority, I worry about the youth who are active – because it's they who have the capacity to create [social movements]."

Yet others believe that youths will become active again only after the voting has finished and the implications of the new political scene begin to sink in. Mr. Bayrek says he expects university campuses to light up with activity after the initial vote.

“I hope they will join together and look for a real vision to change our negative thinking," he says.

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