The free and fair election for the 217 seat Constituent Assembly last Sunday, is a major step in the unfolding transition to democracy in Tunisia.  The impressive turn-out at the ballot boxes, the eagerness of people to cast their votes and the emotions this created, were impressive demonstrations of the aspiration of Tunisians to be governed democratically.

Earlier this year, the revolt against the corrupt and autocratic Ben Ali regime in Tunisia triggered long overdue transitions for democracy throughout the Arab region, now commonly known as the Arab Spring.  With the successful organization of multi-party elections, Tunisia is once again providing a positive incentive for the democratization process in the Arab region.

Election results
Although the full election results have not been announced at the time of writing this blog, the published results so far indicate that from the 100 participating  political parties and formations about 17 gained seats in the new constituent assembly.  Of these 17, only 8 parties  received more than one seat and are likely to constitute the new political class in Tunisia.  For any multi-party democracy, this is generally considered to be a workable number for a pluriform society.

Of the 8 parties, the big winner of the elections is Ennahda, the Islam party which won over 40% of the seats.  The other 7 secular parties divide an almost equal amount of seats among themselves.  Among these 7, the CPR (Congres for the Rupublic), the Aridha Chaabi (Popular Petition for Freedom, Justice and Development), Eltakatol and the PDP (Progressive Democratic Party), form the main secular bloc in the Constituent Assembly.

Transition roadmap
The main task of the Constituent Assembly is to form a transitional government and to draft a new constitution during the next 12 months.  The new constitution will set the democratic architecture under which Tunisia will be governed in future.  Under the provisions of the new constitution, general elections (likely in 2013) will be organized to elect the first democratically elected parliament and government of Tunisia.

This two step approach, an election for a constituent assembly mandated to draft a new constitution and new general elections based on the provisions of the new constitution, is a transition roadmap that was followed in the successful South African transition to democracy when apartheid ended in 1994.  It is interesting and encouraging to note the similarities between the two transition processes.

The inclusive approach followed by ANC as the dominant political party in South Africa, resulted in a popular supported constitution-making process, a constitution that became a ‘living’ document for the citizenry, and a stable political system in South Africa.  Despite tremendous economic inequalities and poverty still to overcome, South Africa has nevertheless become one of the BRICS, emerging markets, countries.   Despite distrust between the different population groups, past injustice and deep socio-cultural cleavages, the participatory and inclusive process practiced during the transition years in South Africa, contributed substantially to this outcome.

This lesson in participation and inclusivity in deciding about the future governing dispensation appears relevant in the Tunisian situation as well where the political cleavage is mainly defined by the Islamic – secular discourse.

The Islam factor
The prelimary election results indicate that Ennahda becomes the biggest political formation, one may even say the dominant party in relation to the results of the other smaller secular parties.  It should not be surprising that in a predominantly Muslim country, a Muslim party that resisted the previous autocratic regime and has been repressed for such a long period, surfaces in free elections.  We are familiar in Europe with Christian democratic parties, which have tended to settle in the center of the political spectrum.

Ennahda has stated that it wants to be a modern Islamic party and not an Islamist party.  It adheres to the concept of multi-party democracy and recognizes the international UN Human  and Political Rights Covenants.  It has meanwhile engaged secular parties to form a broad transitional government.  For Ennahda, the Turkish Akh party of premier Erdogan, an Islam party governing in a secular state, is the role-model.  A reassuring reference.

I realize, however, that there is always a difference between rhetoric and practice and that the Ennahda assurances meet with suspicion among those who believe that democracy and Islam are uneasy bedfellows.  Whereas suspicion can be explained from past experience, with the election of past Sunday, Tunisia has now opened a new chapter in which each political party will need to define itself and its policies in open interactions and discourse.

Active engagement of Ennahda in dialogue on all issues relating to a new constitution and on the much needed  policies to revive and renovate the Tunisian economy, should be the road forward.  The debate is expected to focus on the core political challenges, namely entrenching democracy, establishing accountable governance, reviving the economy to create jobs and providing human security and justice.  These immediate political challenges will hopefully help to overcome or diminish the decisive identity discourse on Islamism vs secularism.

New constitution and electoral system
For multi-party democracy to succeed in Tunisia, an electoral system need to be designed and agreed upon that provides incentives which shall result in plus or minus 6 to 9 political parties to be elected in the future parliament.  Such a system would require coalition governments while maintaining a number of parties left to form the opposition in parliament.  In this way, check and balances can be anchored.  The outcome of Sunday’s election points in this direction.

On this score, however, the Turkish example should not be followed.   In the Turkish electoral law, an unprecedented high threshold of 10% makes it very difficult for parties (and hence population constituencies) to be represented in parliament while giving the dominant AK party (Party for Justice and Development) a disproportional number of seats.  No or a low threshold are the best guarantee for a parliament in which the diversity of political views is best represented.   The threshold mark for entering the future parliament may, therefore, feature high in the forthcoming discussions about the future electoral system.

Europe’s support
The EU accepted a new Neighborhood Policy earlier this year in which countries moving forward in deepening their democracy would qualify for increased cooperation.  It is referred to as the ‘more for more’ approach.  Tunisia passed an important milestone last Sunday.  The EU, and other international partners, should now respond by stepping up assistance, investments and trade preferences to assist the Tunisian economy to regain growth (which slowed down to 0% in 2011) and to create jobs.

This support should be accompanied by EU investment in an active engagements of European civil and political society with their Tunisian counterparts as a contribution to the foundation of an open society through free association and speech based on mutual respect for equal rights and diversity of opinion.   Such engagements shall also be instrumental in support of the emerging institutionalization process of the institutions that will make up the new democracy architecture of Tunisia.

Although the EU is understandably occupied with countering the Euro crises, this positive development in Tunisia at Europe’s southern border and the strategic importance it can potentially have on the transition processes in Egypt, Libya and beyond, need to be generously embraced.

The first sparrow of the Arab Spring does not bring summer, as the saying goes.  Yet, the spirit of democracy as expressed by the huge and peaceful voter turn-out on Sunday and the independent management of the elections, ought to give confidence in the forthcoming constitution-making process, which will be the next major step in the transition to democracy in Tunisia.   The mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, who ignited the Tunisian revolt and subsequent Arab Spring through his self-immolation, qualified the election as a victory for dignity and freedom.  “Now I am happy that my son’s death has given the chance to get beyond fear and injustice.”