Getting Out the Female Vote in Tunisia

The woman, in her late fifties and clad in a white headscarf and a long blue dress, stood in the middle of Avenue Bourguiba, in the heart of downtown Tunis, and fumbled in her purse. Looking exhausted in the intense July heat, she was standing in a line of people in front of a tent where officials were registering Tunisian citizens for the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for this fall. Because of its strategic location in the center of the Tunisian capital, and perhaps also because of the ample shade provided by the trees lining the street, this particular tent has been recording the highest number of registrations in the city, according the High Independent Authority for Elections (ISIE) employees who work there.

But that might not be saying very much. When the ISIE launched voter registration on June 22, the process was scheduled to end one month later -- but low turnout and a profound apathy among eligible voters prompted the ISIE to extend voter registration until July 29. The total number of registered voters is now close to 5 million. Yet that still falls far short of the 7 million Tunisians who are eligible to vote.

"I don't have an ID card," the woman asked, smiling. "Can I use my passport to register?"

A younger woman, also standing in line, asked her if she lived abroad.

"Yes. I try to visit Tunisia every other summer. But this time I'm back for good."

"Why?" asked the younger woman. "If I lived in Europe, I'd never come back. Better opportunities out there."

"This is my country. This is home," the older woman replied. "I want to be a part of this. I want to help decide who my president will be. I'm tired of being disconnected, of being too far away. This is the best time to be in Tunisia."

Many women stop by the tent every day to register or to check the locations of their polling station, said Intidhar Louati, an ISIE employee who was helping potential voters register at the tent.

"It's no longer a question of women versus men," she told me. "I see women as active as men, as enthusiastic as men about registering and voting. Tunisian women have proved over and over that they have an opinion and that they won't give up their right to express it."

Tunisia is widely considered to be one of the most progressive Arab countries. That perception owes much to the country's relatively advanced state of women's rights, which has been guaranteed by law since 1956. Tunisian women were among the first women in the Arab world to be able to vote, file for divorce, and to pass down Tunisian citizenship to children born abroad or to a foreign father. Polygamy has been officially banned since the era of Tunisia's first President Habib Bourguiba, back in 1956. Both contraception and abortion are legal and accessible and have been for decades.

Since the revolution began in 2011, women have not only participated in nationwide protests but have also shaped events as politicians, ministers, and civil society activists. As the next elections approach, however, those who wish to ensure full female participation say that they worry in particular about rural women, who often don't possess the necessary identification documents or live far away from registration offices. Some civil society campaigns, said Louati, are targeting these women by organizing get-out-the-vote campaigns to reach far-flung citizens.

Fatma Houas, president of the French branch of the volunteer association Citizen Commitment, said that Tunisian women are generally less motivated about politics than men because they are preoccupied with everyday concerns. "And if they come from a marginalized area, " Houas continued, "they need help to realize and understand the importance of what's happening and of their vote. Politics might sound so distant from their lives. As for men, they have the chance to discuss politics in cafés or at work." Rural women find themselves isolated, especially from politics, as they spend most of their time either in the field or inside the house. Even when they meet with other women, they are unlikely to discuss politics.

Houas's group has organized campaigns aimed at raising awareness among Tunisians living abroad about the importance of voting and exercising other civic rights. She explained that many Tunisians are overwhelmed by the sudden profusion of information about voting and elections. "Too much information kills the essential information," she said.

Officials and activists are using the registration process to target newly eligible voters as well as eligible voters who failed to register during the October 2011 National Constituent Assembly elections, the first free elections in Tunisia's history. (The photo above shows a Tunisian woman holding up her voter registration receipt for the 2011 elections.)

"We shouldn't panic about the low number," said Tunisian activist and artist Leila Toubel. "We're encountering the same problem as in 2011." Back then, she said, 48 percent of eligible Tunisians chose not to vote. Since then, hundreds of thousands of more young Tunisians have reached the voting age of 18, joining the ranks of eligible voters. "The problem is that they need to become aware enough of their responsibility to vote," said Toubel. She criticized the authorities for scheduling registration during the summer, when Tunisian university students are finishing their exams and most of the population is observing Ramadan. She also noted that government voter awareness campaigns, based on celebrity spokespeople, have proven ineffective. "There was never a clear strategy," she added. But she disagreed with the assertion that women and men face differing access to information, saying that the problems are broader: "Tunisians are too emotional. It almost feels like everyone is still numb, or still unwilling to confront our problems."

Kalthoum Kennou, a former president of the Tunisian Association of Judges, has announced her intent to run in the November 23 presidential election -- making her the first woman in Tunisian history to do so. "Women are encouraging me more than men," she told me in an interview. "But I'm nonetheless surprised by the number of men showing support."

The role of Tunisian women in the democratic transition has been crucial. Yet male and female Tunisians alike generally agree that they have little faith in politicians. Many considered the October 2011 elections a test of democracy. Almost three years later, many elected officials have failed to keep their promises, and many Tunisians are disappointed.

Yet it also counts as a positive sign that many activists, and especially female ones, are cognizant of the challenge of apathy and are attempting to address it. "This country is ours," Toubel said. She sighed and paused. "And it will still be ours. We have to go on."

Farah Samti is a former editor at Tunisia Live, Tunisia's first news website in English, and has also published in The New York Times. Her Twitter handle is @Farah_SamT.


Democracy Lab

The Good News from Indonesia's Election Stalemate

We don't know who the winner is yet, but the presidential election in Indonesia, the world's third largest democracy, is already proving to be the most exciting in recent memory: messy, polarized, and full of drama. Both candidates -- Djoko Widodo (known as Jokowi) and Prabowo Subianto -- are claiming victory, each citing unofficial results produced by several private polling agencies. Indonesia's official news agencies have now withdrawn their initial vote projections in order to calm the waters before the official results are released.

The Indonesian Election Commission is expected to complete counting the votes on July 21. According to the English-language Jakarta Post, cases of foul play are spreading "like a rash during the vote tabulation phase." Most of the complaints are coming from Jokowi's supporters.

Whoever wins, his margin of victory will be small. Both candidates have already made it clear that they will not accept defeat on the basis of the vote count determined by the Indonesian Election Commission (KPU). That means that the second-place candidate will probably take matters to the Constitutional Court, which will delay the official announcement of the results by a month, complicate the country's already chaotic post-electoral politics, and test the (so far admirable) discipline of each camp's supporters. On the positive side, an appeal will further institutionalize these procedures and establish a road map for future contingencies. Indonesia has approximately three months to complete the electoral process before a new president takes the charge by mid-October 2014.

Over the past three months, the election has opened up a sharp political divide between the traditional political elite and groups that are demanding greater political change. The former camp has coalesced around Prabowo, an ex-general who played a leading role in Suharto's security apparatus. The latter, consisting mainly of civil society groups and ordinary citizens, have supported Jokowi, who has used his position as mayor of Jakarta to buttress his reputation as a reformer. These two sides of the Indonesian electorate have found themselves at odds over the question of how much democracy is good for Indonesia and how much political space is needed for Indonesian citizens.

The Prabowo-led coalition of forces from the established political elite has been dueling with a Jokowi-led movement that is demanding more democratic reforms, clean government, and greater political accountability. While Jokowi is widely viewed as a champion of good governance, Prabowo has been linked with large-scale human rights violations during the riots of May 1998, when the businesses and homes of Indonesians of ethnic Chinese origin were attacked around the country.

Jokowi, the man of the masses, represents the Indonesian Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the largest political party in the Indonesian parliament. Prabowo, a former military general and son-in-law of Indonesia's former dictator, Suharto, is the leader of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), the third-largest political party in parliament.

You might think that Jokowi would have the edge simply because of his populist reputation as a man who represents the aspirations of ordinary Indonesians -- and you wouldn't be far off, since he has indeed been the national favorite ever since the campaign first got under way. Yet Prabowo has gone from single-digit approval ratings at the beginning of this year to his current status as a challenger on almost equal terms with the front-runner. Why has his candidacy taken off so dramatically? What is the source of his appeal?

Above all, Prabowo has tapped into growing popular frustration with what many see as Indonesia's chaotic democratic process. His vote-winning strategy has relied on a highly effective media campaign organized around themes of economic nationalism and xenophobia. He has built a strong electoral alliance, mobilized lucrative support from business elites, embraced religious hardliners, and cast himself as a strong leader who will vigorously defend the country's national interests and natural resources. It was the government of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the leader of the PDI-P, that allowed international companies to start mining in protected forests in 2004. Prabowo's economic nationalism has proven so popular during the campaign that Jokowi was forced to include similar planks in his agenda several months ago.

In order to win over the support of Indonesia's majority Muslims, Prabowo has openly embraced the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a religious militia that has launched several attacks not only on religious minorities but also on non-Sunni Muslims.

Prabowo has also proven to be a skilled coalition-builder, ultimately putting together a broad alliance of seven conservative parties. The coalition's members, who include four Islamist groups as well as Suharto's own Golkar party, potentially command more than two-thirds of total votes as well as a parliamentary majority. The coalition not only drew in supporters and sympathizers but also extended Prabowo's political and social appeal.

Shortly after the election, Prabowo announced plans to transform this electoral alliance into a five-year permanent coalition -- one that will stand for unapologetically majoritarian rule, policies closely tied to moneyed interests, and resistance to further democratic reforms. (In reality, Prabowo's "permanent" coalition may not last very long if he loses; Golkar, in particular, has a long history of opportunism, switching sides whenever it sees fit.)

Prabowo's most effective (and polarizing) campaign tactic, however, has been his smear campaign against Jokowi. In a significant departure from past presidential campaigns in the democratic era, Prabowo launched a frontal attack on his rival, charging him with insufficient Islamic piety, Chinese origins, and communist sympathies. This is, essentially, a reprise of the approach favored by Suharto, who used the same three accusations as the basis for eliminating a large number of Indonesian citizens during his three decades of authoritarian rule. Prabowo's apparent success at reviving the old formula has raised uncomfortable questions about the extent to which the legacy of Suharto-style authoritarianism remains alive and well. Indonesia's dark past, as Australian journalist Hamish Macdonald noted, "is proving uncomfortably persistent."

Yet there is actually quite a lot of good news amid the darkness. The same very ingredients that Prabowo has used to his advantage -- the politics of exclusion, fear, and intimidation -- have mobilized common citizens and civil society against his candidacy. Indonesians began to worry that his victory could mean an end to democracy. On July 4, The Jakarta Post, one of Indonesia's most influential daily papers, broke a 30-year policy of neutrality and officially endorsed Jokowi as a presidential candidate. The paper's editorial staff defended their decision by arguing that the stakes were too high in this election, and that the fate of Jokowi's candidacy would also decide the fate of Indonesian democracy.

Even though this contest has sorely tested Indonesian democracy, it has also demonstrated once again the strength of popular participation and of respect for democratic norms. Turnout in this election has broken all previous records, proving that Indonesians are determined to see that their votes count.

Equally importantly, this election has been almost completely free of violence. Indonesians have adhered to the democratic norm of expressing their political differences by peaceful means. The Indonesian security forces have remained neutral, successfully maintaining law and order throughout the country. Meanwhile, electoral authorities, civil activists, and party volunteers have been keeping a close watch on ballot boxes and vote tabulation processes in order to prevent tampering.

In this respect, Indonesia's presidential election is reinforcing the broader positive trend among Asian democracies. As in many other countries, the burgeoning Indonesian middle class is pushing for corruption-free, reform-oriented, distributive politics. This class, which now includes around 75 million people, and which is growing by some 10 percent per year, is demanding transparency and accountability.

The likelihood of Jokowi's victory (in the absence of mass-scale electoral fraud) implies that the majority of Indonesians reject Prabowo's revival of Suharto-style authoritarianism. For now, the idea of inclusive, progressive, and good governance-driven democracy seems to have trumped the exclusivist, conservative, and elite-driven politics of the few.

Vibhanshu Shekhar is a Scholar-in-Residence at ASEAN Studies Center, American University. He is also a Visiting Fellow at New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He can be reached at

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