Tunisia’s election sets a high bar for Arab Spring

TUNIS, Tunisia — No matter what the results, Tunisia’s landmark election was a monumental achievement in democracy that will be a tough act to follow in elections next month in Egypt and Morocco — and later, in Libya.

In just five months, an independent Tunisian commission organized the first free elections in this North African nation’s history. The ballot attracted 80 parties offering candidates, drew a massive turnout by impassioned voters and was effusively praised by international observers.

“I have observed 59 elections in the last 15 years, many of them in old democracies … and never have I seen a country able to realize such an election in a fair, free and dignified way,” said Andreas Gross, a Swiss parliamentarian and the head of the observer delegation for the Council of Europe. “I was elected in Switzerland on the same day in elections that were not much better than here.”

Tunisia’s success, however hard to replicate, is a milestone for the Arab Spring, the wave of popular uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East that have overthrown long-serving leaders and are changing the face of the region.

Tiny, quiet Tunisia was the first country to rise up, overthrowing its longtime dictator in January. Its example inspired uprisings that overthrew leaders in Egypt and neighboring Libya, and sparked revolutions in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and other Arab nations.

Tunisia was also the first to hold elections. Partial results showed a moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, emerged the leader after Sunday’s voting, stressing its commitment to democratic methods and women’s rights.

While a few scattered violations were reported, it was no mean feat to put together complicated elections involving 80 parties and drawing in more than 90 percent of registered voters in a country that had been nearly a one-party state since its independence from France in 1956.

The Tunisian success stemmed from an effective independent election commission that had the trust of the country’s diverse parties and a fairly homogenous, peaceful population that believed in the process.

Observers say places like Egypt and Morocco — larger, complex countries with long-standing election procedures in place — won’t necessarily be able to mimic the Tunisian experience.

Libya, expected to have elections for a constitutional assembly within eight months, is bloodied and divided after months of civil war and decades under Moammar Gadhafi’s all-controlling, quixotic rule.

Elections in Egypt have been organized by the Interior Ministry — the hated police force, which is not considered an honest broker — rather than an independent commission.

In Tunisia, the police and military were not allowed to vote so as to remain impartial in the process.

Anouar Ben Hassen of Tunisia’s High Independent Authority for the Elections attributed the country’s success to the hard work of the commission and the will of its people, and the fact that it was “a la Tunisienne,” using the French that is the second language of the educated to suggest the country’s uniqueness.

Tunisia also had the advantage of starting from scratch after a revolution that has motivated the population to make a clean break from the past.

An independent election commission was formed by May and rapidly gained the trust of the political parties as an impartial overseer.

“The first thing that strikes me is the number of political parties expressing confidence in the officials running the elections,” said Les Campbell, the head of the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute observer delegation.

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