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Women Win Big in Tunisia Vote

Post-dictatorship Tunisia’s recent election for assembly benefited women and showed the power of technology.

With Tunisia’s ballot boxes closed but not stuffed, the real political winners in the country’s first free election are women.

This election — for an assembly that will write the country’s new constitution — will likely result in the largest percentage of women in any assembly across the Arab world. When the dust settles, about a third of the 217 members of Tunisia’s constituent assembly will be women, twice as many women serving as currently serve in the U.S. Congress.

Working as an official observer for the National Democratic Institute last week, I was struck both by how well women have fared in the new democratic process and how patient and proud many Tunisians were as they were handed a real ballot. Counting those ballots took a full week. But in a part of the world with little experience in administering fair elections, this is a logistical triumph.

Many countries around the world allow election observers, and a modern election can draw hundreds of paid and unpaid observers to watch both campaign politics and the mechanics of elections administration. Elections observers get accredited by the national government, and organizations such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and the Carter Center have built strong reputations for observing elections. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union also had accredited observers, but almost every embassy in Tunis sent out staff on election night just to keep track of events.

Ideally, elections observers do not “help” with the election in any way. Some governments do hire consultants to help train staff, set rules, and administer the election. But elections observers perform an important function in simply tracking the good and bad behavior of all political actors: parties, journalists, government agencies, and lobbyists. They do more than simply issue a press releasing judging whether an election is basically free and fair. The work of observing means evaluating the many different aspects of competitive politics at election time, and recommending some improvements for the next election.

In a country with millions voting for the first time, observers noted several things that could be improved for the next election, which, in Tunisia’s case, must occur before November 2012, and should result in a new, democratically chosen head of state. But problems were anecdotal, not systematic. The most notable trend was a positive one: more women ran for election than we expected, and more women voted than we expected.

There are three reasons the election went well. First, the “zipper system” works. Requiring that a portion of the candidate pool be female, and then alternating the candidates by gender on a ballot list, makes female candidates genuinely competitive for political office. The system was designed after several emerging democracies, such as Indonesia, found that their first real elections produced fewer female representatives than under the rigged system. For Tunisia, political parties actively sought female candidates to join their nomination lists.

One of the interesting outcomes is that the Islamist party Ennahdha, which has rarely been allowed to compete for elected office, seemed to have little problem complying with the rules and finding female candidates. This may have regional implications, because it suggests that Islamists will moderate their political positions in order to credibly achieve democratic victory. Some local pundits had speculated that the Islamist party would have all women behind veils, or that they would let men take multiple wives. But these ideas were never part of the party platform, and were probably just scaremongering from competitors. Over time, the party leadership went to great pains to moderate and modernize its image, and having prominent women on its slate actually widened its popular appeal.

This paid off — the party won 90 seats. In the new constitutional assembly, this gives the party a significant voice but not a majority, and it forces the many small, secular parties to find some common ground.

Second, in a country where everyone either has a mobile phone or knows someone with a mobile phone –and the phone networks were sometimes overwhelmed with queries on election day— making tech-savvy investments in elections administration helps improve registration and turnout, especially among women.

The election authority set up a text messaging system that allowed voters to easily confirm which polling station to visit. Under former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, voters would turn up and be told they had already voted. They could choose to vote for an opposition party, but those ballots were a distinct color and were collected in clear envelopes. Given the chance (and challenge) of building a system from scratch, Tunisia’s new electoral administration turned the same database that Ben Ali assembled for surveillance into a functioning registration system.

Simple technological solutions made a big difference in reaching out to women — indeed, anyone who wanted to vote. While young and female voters were less likely to register early, they certainly turned up on election day, expecting to be able to vote. In neighborhoods like Ben Arous, where I was assigned as an observer, the special voting centers for late registrants drew excited, anxious crowds of young and female voters.

Third, social media activated networks of family and friends, getting voter information particularly to young and female voters who had rarely been part of open political conversations. The small parties, and particularly female candidates, used Facebook to coordinate their campaigns, recruit supporters, and even train the observers they sent into polling stations.

In the lead up to the election, broadcast media did a poor job of encouraging people to register, but in the last month, the Tunisian corner of Facebook was alight with campaigns to get people to register and vote, and last-minute instructions on voting at special polls. These special centers had voter lists numbering in the thousands, and we international observers who visited were struck by the concentration of young female voters. Indeed, these were the polls where lineups lasted for hours, and people stayed late into the night to celebrate and wait for results.

Certainly, the country has a way to go. On its own, putting lots of women into political office will not guarantee a good constitution. But the election reveals the high expectations Tunisians have for their new leaders, and that people here want their leaders to represent diverse interests.

The Islamist party did not score an overwhelming majority, so it will have to negotiate with the parties that represent diverse secular and ideological communities of opinion in Tunisia. The country will have an election again in a year, at which point President and legislative assembly will be chosen, so the party will have to continue to negotiate between Tunisian communities with traditional values and the democratic value of having popular appeal. In the coming months, the party’s membership will have significant internal debates about which traditions to maintain in its move to the popular political center. It has strong female leaders who wish to prevent discrimination against traditional dress but who have little patience with the misogyny of extremism.

Regardless of how particular parties fared in the election, it is safe to say that women will help mediate political power in Tunisia.

Philip N. Howard is an associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. He recently served with the National Democratic Institute’s observation team in Tunisia. 

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