Tunisia’s shining electoral lesson

The peaceful transfer of power in Tunisia augurs well for a country that helped spark the Arab Spring.

General Secretary of the Nidaa Tounes party Taieb Baccouche will negotiate with other parties to form a coalition government in Tunisia. Photo: Fethi Belaid / AFP
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Amid all the turmoil caused by the Arab Spring, it would be easy to underappreciate what has just happened in Tunisia. This country was not just the home of fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi, whose despairing self-immolation in late 2010 touched a nerve across the Arab world, but was also the first to overthrow its entrenched and autocratic leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in the uprisings that followed.

As subsequent events in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and, most tragically of all, Syria have demonstrated, navigating the transition from despotism to democracy is a tremendously difficult task. But Tunisia this week has conducted elections that led to a peaceful transfer of power – a rarity in the context of regional politics.

This is despite having the same undercurrents afflicting the other Arab Spring countries. Tunisia has been the scene of militant attacks, including the assassination of two opposition MPs, and its political spectrum includes Islamist and secular parties, each of which has had moments of success.

But the Islamist Ennahda party, which dominated the previous election, voluntarily ceded power to a technocratic government. It has accepted defeat in this poll, which not only occurred without violence but was also declared by European Union observers to have been conducted in a “more than satisfactory” manner.

This is truly remarkable. The secret to Tunisia’s success is not really a secret at all but a simple truth: politicians ought to act for the good of their country as a whole rather than simply furthering their own self-interest. Tunisians have seen this exemplified by both the main parties, Ennahda and the secular Nidaa Tounes group.

However, the country’s future is not yet secure. This is still a young and fragile democracy, with some groups harbouring a wish for power that they know they cannot win via the ballot box. Tunisia’s democracy will be fortified if the coalition government continues that spirit of compromise and favours all segments of society, rather than just the one that voted it into power. This election is an excellent start, but there is still a long way to go.