The Arab Spring hurdles its first test in Tunisia

by  Paolo B. Maligaya, NAMFREL Senior Operations Associate
from NAMFREL Election Monitor Vol.2, No.23
Tunisia successfully held its Constituent Assembly elections on October 24, its first after the Tunisian Revolution in March; some say it was the country's first free election since gaining independence in 1956. Observers hailed the election as free and fair, peaceful and orderly. The election commission that organized the polls peg the voter turnout at 90% of the total 4.1 million registered voters. Campaign started on October 1, and Tunisians overseas got to vote on October 20 to 22 in their respective embassies and consulates to elect 18 members of the 217-seat Assembly. The Constituent Assembly will be tasked to appoint a temporary government, and write a new constitution prior to the planned parliamentary and presidential elections. 11,000 candidates in 27 districts contested the Constituent Assembly election.
Final results show that the well-organized moderate Islamist party Ennahda ("Renaissance Movement") led the polls, winning 90 seats, or 41% of the votes. The party was banned by deposed president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's secular government, the party seen as a threat by Tunisia's predominantly secularist society. Even during the election, some members of the party were reportedly harassed. However, in the lead-up to the election, the members and officers of the party stressed that should they win, they will not impose fundamentalist values on society, to assuage the concerns of Tunisia's secularists and the West. The performance of Ennahda in this election is being closely watched not only by Western governments but also by neighboring countries. Ennahda is the second Islamist party to gain such victory in the region after the less-moderate Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections. It might also have a bearing on the outcome of the series of elections in Egypt that would start in December, where the party touted to win is the Muslim Brotherhood, which has also raised concerns among Egyptians as well as Western countries. In 1991, Islamists won the election in Algeria, triggering years of conflict after the results were annulled by the military.

On October 27, after the final results were announced, more than 2,000 supporters of the Areedha Chaabiya party, which placed fourth in the polls, held a violent protest in the city of Sidi Bouzid, when the seats won in the city by said party were invalidated by the election commission as penalty for "financial irregularities." The Constituent Assembly election was brought about by the Tunisian Revolution, a wave of strong protests that started in December 2010 against the regime that had been in power for 23 years, culminating with president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigning and fleeing the country less than a month later.
The Tunisia protests set off similar demonstrations and unrest in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Morocco, and several other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, which continue to this day, the most recent chapter of which was the capture and death of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

Western media called it the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring is but the latest in a series of waves of democratization seen in the last thirty years throughout the world. It started in Asia with the Philippine People Power revolt in 1986, followed by the June Democracy Movement in South Korea in 1987, and the less successful albeit historic revolts such as the 8888 Uprising in Burma in 1988, and the Tiananmen protests in China in 1989. The Asian revolts inspired similar uprisings in Europe, starting in 1989 in Poland, spreading to countries such as Hungary, East Gemany (fall of the Berlin Wall), Romania, Czechoslovakia (the Velvet Revolution), and in many other countries, culminating in the
dismantling of the Soviet Union and the overthrow of communist regimes which continued through the following decade. In the last decade, a similar wave of peaceful protests succeeded in overthrowing governments in Eastern Europe following disputed elections, such as the Rose Revolution of 2003 in Georgia, and the Orange Revolution of 2004/2005 in the Ukraine. There are others, like Burma's monk
uprising -- the Saffron Revolution of 2007 -- that, although unsuccessful in overthrowing a military junta, served as a concrete reminder that the desire for democracy is alive and resilient.

Revolts and uprisings (peaceful or otherwise) such as the Arab Spring send a clear message to despots and repressive governments everywhere that democracy cannot be contained. Freedom always finds a way. It knows no boundaries such as ethnicity and faith. Change cannot be prevented by tradition, antiquated laws and systems; we were witness to the role that technology and social
media played in the success of the revolts, despite limitations traditionally employed to suppress information. However, the true test of democracy, after all the euphoria of overcoming what was deemed impossible has died down, is if the people could sustain it. Twenty five years after EDSA, the Philippines is still working on it, not just in ensuring the conduct of free and fair elections, but in strengthening democratic institutions and ensuring people's participation in good governance. The Arab Spring countries will have a tough time ahead, not only in picking up the pieces and rebuilding their nations, but also in proving that democracy could indeed thrive and flourish in the context of the Middle East. The huge participation of people in the Tunisia election indicates that the people are up for the challenge; this is a good sign and a good start. Just the same, countries that have gone through the same experience, such as the Philippines, are encouraged to extend a helping hand through sharing of experiences and expertise if it is asked of us, and to reach out to other countries that may be dreaming of an Arab Spring of their own.