In The News / Op Eds / Seattle Times

Seattle Times: The Real Success in the Tunisian Elections is an Authentic, Democratic Process

(This appeared as an OpEd entitled “The Real Success in the Tunisian Elections is an Autthentic, Democratic Process” in the Seattle Times.

TUNISIA, a country that had never experienced democracy, held a successful election last week. This was the first election of the Arab Spring, and the first in an Arab country where the outcome was unknown and the electoral system not predisposed to shaping the outcome. Why did the election work so well?

It went well because election administrators made some tech-savvy infrastructure investments, people used social media to encourage friends and family to participate, and political parties put their ideas online.

Watching the elections as an official observer, I had the genuine sense that election administrators really wanted to enfranchise as many people as possible. Those administrators were clearly stretched, but the technical shortcomings turned out to be anecdotal, not systematic. Their decisions were really about drawing people into political processes. Voters were patient and understanding with the myriad new rules.

Ninety percent of registered voters turned out, and there were more female candidates competing for office than has ever been seen in the countries of the region. Indeed, about 30 percent of the 217-member constitutional assembly are expected to be women after results are finalized. That’s more than double the percentage of women that typically serve in the U.S. Congress. All this from a country that nine months ago had an octogenarian dictator’s face plastered on three of every four billboards.

First, elections officials’ investments improved registration and turnout, especially among women and young people. In Tunisia, 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 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 purposes into a functioning registration system.

The phone networks were sometimes overwhelmed with queries on election day, but everyone in the country either has a mobile phone or knows someone with a mobile phone. Simple technological solutions made a big difference in reaching out to women — indeed anyone who wanted to vote.

Second, people used social media to activate networks of family and friends, getting voter information particularly to young female voters who had rarely been part of open political conversations. In the lead-up to the election, broadcast media did a poor job of encouraging people to register. In the last month, however, the Tunisian corner of Facebook was alight with campaigns to get people to register and vote. In days before the election, YouTube burgeoned with homemade get-out-the-vote campaigns and instructions on how to register at special polling centers.

These special centers had voter lists numbering in the thousands, and we international observers 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.

Third, political parties made good use of digital media at strategic moments in the campaign. For small parties, and particularly female candidates, Facebook was key to coordinating their campaigns, recruiting supporters, and even training the observers they sent into polling stations. Major parties were most affected by the broadcast rules limiting exposure, so they went to digital media to do their most creative campaigning.

One candidate, known for his quirky, oversized glasses, hired some French political consultants to design an engaging and entertaining online campaign for his party. This brought enough attention that his party came out ahead of a party that had been the traditional “official” opposition through the years of dictatorship.

Many Western media focused on how the Islamist party fared in the results, missing the bigger story that the process was the real victory. Some analysts argue that in taking the largest single portion of seats, the Islamist party now has the political clout to advance a radical agenda. But this election demonstrates that the party is eager to moderate its agenda to get ahead in competitive politics.

Some experts thought the Internet was going to be a boon for radical voices and fundamentalist Islam. But in Tunisia, some smart use of digital media seems to have helped moderate radical voices. Today, digital media gives a young democracy good bones.

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