The point of this blog is to raise the title question, using as an example Tunisia in its upcoming parliamentary election. The follow up blog, after the election, will seek to provide some answers.

The elections, the first to be held under President Kais Saïed’s new electoral law, will see voters select individual candidates rather than party lists. Parties are forbidden from financing candidates who will face restrictions in any of their own fundraising. Major opposition parties have boycotted the election including the latest party founded by former minister Mabrouk Korchid.

The question restated, whether it helps strengthen democracy to observe meticulously bureaucratic electoral procedures while at the same time overlook the de facto disqualification of opposition parties.? Does it send a coherent message to do both at the same time both observe electoral process and criticize opposition restrictions? Answers will come in time. For now, keep an eye on the situation in Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

On, December 14th, the Us Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met with President Kais Saied of Tunisia. The meeting as reported by the official Department of State news service had no suggestion of serious discord over the upcoming parliamentary election December 17, 2022. “Secretary Blinken emphasized the importance of free and fair December 17 parliamentary elections, as well as inclusive reforms to strengthen democratic checks and balances and the protection of fundamental freedoms.”

The standing of the opposition parties, and parties in general, provides the flashpoint between the President and the Secretary. President Saied brought in changes that forbid parties from funding its candidates, imposed restrictions on electronic advertising, and the use of polls. He created a separate upper chamber with members likely to be appointed by regional councils.

The Washington Post at day’s end ran the headline, Tunisia’s leader defiantly rejects U.S. rebuke on democratic erosion.

The electoral campaign period kicked off on November 25, with 1,055 candidates standing for 161 seats. Despite the opposition party boycotts, dozens of candidates have united under a pro-Saïed initiative called “For the People’s Triumph.”

President Saied used his brief remarks before entering the meeting with Secretary Blinken to make a blunt defence of these electoral changes that in essence hobble opposition parties in parliamentary elections and gravely lessen the powers of elected representatives.

“And after the revolution and after the boom that Tunisia witnessed in 2010 and 2011, we have thought seriously of drafting constitution. But the – unfortunately the constitution that was drafted, it was quite customized to serve the needs of a specific category. It’s as if it was a garment or a pair of shoes, and that was the outcome of the election and the ballots that were adopted, which was the ballot on the list, by implementing the representative – the partial representativity and the biggest residue. And as (inaudible) said in France when we adopted this kind of ballot system, he said that it is the ballot of shame. We were voting in the dark, and nobody was aware of the outcome of these elections.”

At a meeting with the Washington Post editorial board, President Saied continued his defence of his actions against the Biden’s administration criticisms of democratic backsliding, which has resulted in a large cut to the proposed 2023 aid to Tunisia.

“Saied blamed “fake news” for widespread Western criticism of his steps to strengthen his presidential powers and denounced unidentified “foreign forces” whom he said were attempting to stir up opposition to his rule.”

A quick roundup of global stories support the views that President Saied’s regulations of parties and the media has eroded Tunisian democracy.

.France 24Tunisia awaits languid election for powerless parliament11 hours ago

ReutersCritics of Tunisian leader see little democracy in coming election3 days ago

Al JazeeraEx-Tunisian president warns of ‘Arab volcano’ ahead of elections4 hours ago

ReutersTunisia journalists union accuses election authority of harassing …18 hours ago

The Washington PostTunisian leader Kais Saied rejects U.S. rebuke on democratic erosion11 hours ago

Article 19Tunisia: New election rules threaten media freedom and …3 weeks ago

ReutersTunisia’s powerful labour union rejects December election, attacks …2 weeks ago

A case might be made to the public that Tunisia was on the verge of democratically-induced anarchy. Difficulty now is that if the public were to reject that case there is no clear path to reform and normalization.

IFES’s Role

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has worked in Tunisia since 2011.IFES receives its funding from both the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID. IFES describes its work as follows.

“IFES works closely with the High Independent Authority for Elections (ISIE) to build its professional capacity to autonomously manage electoral processes….

IFES’s innovative programming aims to:

  • Consolidate citizens’ confidence in the integrity of the elections by building the various stakeholders’ electoral capacities and supporting electoral reforms.
  • Promote inclusive and participatory democracy by implementing voter awareness and information campaigns targeting young people, women, people living in rural areas, illiterate people and citizens with disabilities.”

Earlier this week, IFES issued a guide “To help you understand this important electoral process, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) provides Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Elections in Tunisia: 2022 Parliamentary Elections.” Reading the guide gives no clear hint of controversy over the condition of democracy in Tunisia.

The IFES section on the crux of dispute over the role of parties and the media are as follows.

“Candidates belonging to political parties can campaign on behalf of their party only if they present an authorization to do so delivered in advance by the party’s legal representative. However, political parties are not allowed to finance their candidates’ electoral campaigns.

During the entire election period, candidates are prohibited from engaging in political advertising that uses commercial marketing techniques. During this period, it is also forbidden to publish the results of opinion polls and comments on those polls that relate directly or indirectly to the elections.”

The questions on the table are intriguing. Is IFES being played by the President to give an okay to the electoral bureaucracy while ignoring democratic substance? Is the sublimation of any direct criticism, the price IFES has to pay to be allowed to stay in country and thus at some distant future moment make a stronger statement? Is IFES just being the “good cop” to the State Department’s “bad cop”? Does a two-track strategy for strengthening democracy work? Or, will the temporary restrictions on opposition parties ultimately doom them? The Tunisia scenario sees parties replaced by divide-and-conquer corporatist blocs, youth and women wings, occupational, regional, and ethnic fiefdoms, such as used by the Soviet Union. Far more questions than answers at this stage.

The tendency for the local autocrats to outwit even the most experienced of election observers has been well documented and explained by Professor Susan M. Hyde, perhaps the leading new scholar of elections at the University of California, Berkley. She asked the question, if authoritarian rulers are going to rig the election anyway, why do they bother holding them and inviting international observers? Her answer: authoritarian regimes know they can outsmart the international EOM, and that democratic virtue-signaling brings more foreign aid and international prestige. That strategy worked as EOMs started to self-censor in response to home government pressures not to jeopardize “future relations.” Predictably, domestic monitors feel left out and resentful that the official EOM is not telling the “real story.”

A parallel trend has been, in the words of Professor Hyde, the “homogenization of election-driven democracy assistance.” Money has poured into the electoral instruments of democracy. Many overseas observers have stories about manipulations of voters’ lists, transparent ballot boxes, finger inks, and electronic voting (worthy of Andrew Roberts’ The Aachen Memorandum). Yet, the homogenization of aid put the focus on process, not results. The concern over the training and deployment of Election Day workers outranked an examination of the democratic quality of the electoral result.

The answers to the original question will have to wait for the election results to be announced. More germanely, observers will want to read closely the judgment reviews of the various election monitoring organizations, including IFES.