The Tunisian electoral commission abruptly invalidated nine candidates who won seats in the Constituent Assembly on Thursday night, prompting violent protests in the impoverished town that sparked the Tunisian revolution last December.
The success of Aridha Chaabia (Popular Petition) party was a complete surprise to journalists and analysts. No major news source had predicted they would win a seat, yet with most districts reporting election results on Thursday afternoon, Aridha was poised to take third place in the Constituent Assembly, even beating center-left heavyweights like Ettakatol party and the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP).
Aridha Chaabia leader Hachimi Hamdi, a former member of Ennahda who left the movement in 1992, combines populist promises with religious rhetoric, and the media and political establishment in Tunis showed a deep skepticism toward the unexpected newcomers.
When the electoral commission, known by its French acronym ISIE, announced the invalidation of Aridha candidates in six districts at a press conference Thursday night, Tunisian journalists burst into raucous applause. As ISIE members attempted to quiet the crowd, the media of Tunisia sang the national anthem and a confused technician briefly flashed a slide of the Tunisian flag on the overhead projection.
In Sidi Bouzid, the town where the Arab Spring began, Aridha Chaabia won more seats than any other party, even the moderate Islamic party Ennahda. After the ISIE’s announcement of Aridha Chaabia’s disqualification in Sidi Bouzid, protesters attacked the town’s governorate headquarters and the municipal office. Police and the national army tried to disperse ongoing protests with tear gas this morning.
In an interesting twist, protesters in Sidi Bouzid are outraged over both the invalidation of Aridha lists and earlier comments by Ennahda Secretary-General Hamadi Jebali, who implied in a Hannibal TV interview that Sidi Bouzid voters were easily influenced and did not truly know who they were voting for or why. Ennahda’s headquarters in Sidi Bouzid were looted and ransacked last night after the comments.
The world is watching Tunisia’s October 23rd elections closely, as these are the first democratic elections to be held in a country affected by the Arab Spring since popular protests swept the region earlier this year. Tunisians voted on Sunday for representatives to a Constituent Assembly which will appoint a new government and write a new constitution.
International observers and media declared the elections transparent and credible, but the ongoing violence in Sidi Bouzid suggests that declarations of a successful democratic transition may have been premature.
Some Tunisians argue that the Aridha Chaabia party was organized by the former regime as an elaborate plot to maintain influence in Tunisia after the ouster of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14th. Suggestions of old-regime ties are hard to evaluate and impossible to prove at this point, but Hamidi’s history of praising Ben Ali does merit investigation.
Even if the conspiracy theories are true, Aridha Chaabia received votes from several hundred thousand Tunisians in a voting process that was deemed open and transparent by national and international observers. The ISIE’s unilateral rejection of nine elected candidates from six districts could be a serious misstep in the democratic process.
ISIE member Sami Ben Slema told Tunisia Live that Aridha’s lists were rejected based on concrete evidence that Aridha had exceeded the limit on campaign expenditures set by electoral law. “We have evidence that Al Aridha spent too much on their campaign,” Ben Slema told Tunisia Live. “That’s why we dealt with the issue immediately. Such an issue doesn’t have to be addressed in court.”
A Failure of Legalism
Aridha Chaabia is the only party so far to face sanctions, though almost none of Tunisia’s top parties can claim to have followed the letter of the law.
ISIE put strict limits on campaign financing and political discourse during the campaign. In the name of fairness, all candidates were invited to present themselves in a three-minute spot on national television according to a randomly assigned schedule. Political advertising was banned starting on September 12th, and candidates were forbidden from appearing on radio and television shows starting with the official campaign period on October 1st. What was ostensibly an idealistic attempt to uphold the democratic ideals of equality began to function as a repression of political speech.
Foreign financing was banned, and to pay for campaigns, each candidate list was supposed to receive a sum of money proportional to the number of registered voters in their district from the Ministry of Finance. No list or party was allowed to spend more than three times this handout.
These regulations saw repeated violations, and the legal response has been inconsistent. Ettounisia TV was shut down after inviting Communist leader Hamma Hammami to a political show, but Nessma TV went un-sanctioned for an appearance by the same candidate. Nessma is widely considered to be an advocate for the PDP, and secular interests supposedly protect it from harm.
As for financing, many smaller parties and independents complained that even deep into the October campaign period, they had not received their funds. Campaign financing laws aimed at equality had, in fact, rewarded parties with independent wealth.
After the October 23rd vote, results began arriving district by district, and the “big three” winners – Ennahda, Ettakatol, and the Congress for the Republic (CPR) – began talking about forming a national unity government, ignoring third-place winner Aridha Chaabia. But as Aridha’s winnings grew, so too did unease among officials and parties in Tunis. On October 25th, ISIE told the TAP state news agency that they were considering complaints about Aridha Chaabia’s campaign finances.
By Thursday the 27th, ISIE was caught in a trap of its own making. Aridha Chaabia had promoted itself in Tunisia on a London-based TV station, probably with foreign funding, without anyone noticing. An inconsistent regulatory process had allowed Aridha to win several hundred thousand votes before any official authority could address their clear campaign violations. ISIE would have to deny the choice of the voters or choose to ignore their infractions.
An October 27th headline in La Presse newspaper summed up the political climate: “Aridha Chaabia in the Crosshairs.” The prominent political class in Tunis, deeply distrustful of Hachimi Hamidi and his unclear ties to the old regime, expected Aridha’s obvious violations of electoral law to be punished with the invalidation of seats. Amidst this pressure, the ISIE chose to reject nine Aridha candidates from six different districts, about a third of Aridha’s successful candidates. All three Aridha candidates to win a seat in Sidi Bouzid were invalidated.
The unilateral invalidation of candidates after they had already won thousands of votes is a drastic decision, even if Aridha is secretly organized by ex-regime figures. It appears that the ISIE has not yet begun to address reported violations of other parties; that process is planned to follow due process over the next two weeks. Aridha’s rejection appears to be a ruling of choice rather than legal necessity.
Few of the top parties in Tunisia can claim to have followed the letter of the electoral law, and there is enough legal ambiguity that ISIE can pick and choose which parties and offenses to punish. The vote on Sunday may have been successful and transparent, but the actual assignment of seats in the Constituent Assembly is now open to broad revision by a 16-member commission.
From the perspective of Sidi Bouzid, none of the current political elite truly represents the most marginalized Tunisians. Even Ennahda, with a strong popular appeal based in religion, Tunisian identity, and a history of opposition to the old regime, is led by coastal figures like Hamadi Jebali, who grew up in Sousse. The leader of Aridha Chaabia, on the other hand, was born and raised in Sidi Bouzid. He speaks with an accent unique to southern and central Tunisia.
When the national media jumped to their feet on Thursday night to celebrate the invalidation of nine Aridha Chaabia seats, they confirmed what many residents of Sidi Bouzid have felt since Ben Ali fled the country on January 14th. With or without Ben Ali, the political players of Tunis are distant and inaccessible to the marginalized residents of southern and central Tunisia.
Throughout its brief existence, ISIE has demonstrated integrity and inexperience. The disenfranchisement of the revolution’s first instigators appears to be the sum of a series of mistakes in regulation rather than a concerted effort to silence impoverished residents of interior Tunisia.
Aridha Chaabia may be affiliated with the old regime. Yet the fact remains; when the well-established parties felt threatened by a populist voice from the dusty, neglected town that lit a spark to change the world, the electoral commission stepped forward and pushed that voice down again.