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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Freedom and Democracy
IT Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Tunisia's vote and the challenge of democracy

An interview with Riccardo Migliori, president of OSCE’s delegation in Tunisia - by Antonella Vicini

Thirteen thousand national observers and 600 international ones, among them 75 from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), were part of the control system set up in Tunisia to avoid the danger of ballot-rigging. Ballot-rigging was the greatest fear not only of the people, but also for the Superior Independent Electoral Commission, led by Kamel Jendoubi, who put his credibility on the line on this issue. All parties agreed that the October 23rd elections were free and fair, as did the Commission and the OSCE delegation, led by an Italian, Riccardo Migliori, vice-president since 2010 of the European Union’s agency based in Denmark.

What is your opinion of this first test faced by the new Tunisia?

It was an exciting experience for all Tunisians, and the first test for democracy in this country. What we saw was a quiet day with voters queuing in an orderly manner, even waiting hours for their turn. My colleagues and I had already been here twice in September, for preparatory meetings, and I must say that until 40 days ago it was not taken for granted that things would go as expected. Instead, in this phase of democratic transition, after only a few months of violent protests, we have seen genuinely free elections. We observed no widespread irregularities.

You were present at all the most difficult polling stations in the south of the country. What was the situation like there?

On Sunday morning we went to Touzer, the last-but-one constituency in the south before Tatouine. Right in the middle of the desert, people came on their bicycles and on foot, travelling for miles. We watched them run toward the polling stations at seven in the morning. In our polling station, when the first ballot paper was placed in the box, everyone applauded amidst widespread jubilation. We took photographs and filmed, because it was so extraordinary to see Tunisians running toward a new Tunisia. In addition to Touzer, we also went to Sidi Bouzid, the heart of the Tunisian revolution.

There is a polling station about fifty metres from the governorship where Bouazizi set himself on fire, and there was great participation there, with many banners remembering what he did. It is a small town, comparable to an agricultural centre in southern Italy, and yet there was great participation. The same happened in the Muslim city of Kairouan, which hosts the third largest mosque and the one most dear to Islam. There we saw many women and none were fully veiled as we had instead expected before the election.

It has been said that political parties applied pressure in some polling station, especially in more isolated areas...

The problem was that many of those who went to vote on Sunday had not registered. Special polling stations were organized for them with a different system, so they could register on the spot. This may have caused a degree of technical and logistical confusion. For example, members of one party or another accompanies a number of voters to the correct polling stations, but I do not think there were really important phenomena within this context.

OSCE can only bear witness to what we saw, and we have no evidence that supports isolated accusations of vote buying from interested parties. Our observers watched honest vote counting and did not report any evident faults on assigning votes. There are those who observed that some parties were better organized, present at all the polling stations, but I see nothing strange in that. Even in Italy the larger parties have more representatives while the smaller ones experience greater problems.

There was of course the problem posed by illiteracy, which is as high as 25% among the women in the south of the country. Many citizens would have needed to be accompanied to vote and at some polling stations they were obliged to exclude a significant number of voters in the name of total transparency and to avoid controversy at a later stage.

What were your greatest fears on the eve of the elections?

We expected a last stand by Ben Ali and his top men. They did not vote in these elections, because they have been deprived of their civil rights for a period of time. We feared some of them might apply pressure, but the Tunisian people provided a clear signal stating that the country has its own way of guaranteeing freedom, respect for human rights and democratic rules.

Elections were held in Tunisia on October 23rd while Libya celebrated its liberation with a speech that effectively paved the way for Shari’a. Is there a parallel here?

Libyans look to Tunisia as a model, socially and culturally. Jibril effectively set out a vague road map based on the Tunisian model with an independent authority and eight months to prepare elections. The difference is that here we are at a stage involving “democracy building” while in Libya they are “state building” so there are two different starting points. Will Tunisia serve as an example? I hope that these elections we positively affect all countries in the area. They will certainly influence Morocco, which has experienced a similar situation. There was no revolution, but Morocco voted for its constitution with a turnout that has the importance of a revolution. I hope this will be an example for Algeria and for Libya, while for Egypt there is still a great question mark.

Were you to describe the elections just held in one sentence, what would you say?

Tunisia has won and has voted, and I can state that from a methodological perspective the country did this a little better than Great Britain. This is a provocative statement, just to say that we cannot expect Tunisia to maintain standards higher than those asked of Europeans. And I hope that all parties and all Tunisians will calmly accept the results of this election.

Translated by Francesca Simmons


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