Elections and reform in the birthplace of the Arab Spring

Dr. Magnus Ohman, Senior Political Finance Adviser of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems
Dr. Magnus Ohman, senior political finance adviser of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems

On Nov. 23, Tunisia held its first presidential elections since the Arab spring, following the parliamentary elections a month earlier. Although it is one of the smaller countries in North Africa, with a population of only eleven million, Tunisia is essential as it is considered the birthplace of the Arab spring — and one of the few countries in the region where the hopes that this revolution brought remain alive.

After the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime, elections for a National Constituent Assembly were held in 2011. The potential role of money in the electoral process was acknowledged already in these elections, and a comparatively strict regulatory system was put in place. For example, contestants were not allowed to receive any private donations, having instead to rely only on public funding and “self-financing.” The largest party to emerge after the elections was the moderate Islamist Ennahda party.

It was generally found that the level of vote buying and abuse of state resources in the 2011 elections had been limited compared to the rest of the region. Even so, the European Union Observation Mission recommended an overall review of the legislative framework, including a strengthened role for the Court of Accounts and, importantly, the publication of the financial statements submitted by the electoral stakeholders.

A new Electoral Law was passed in May 2014, which allowed for private donations, though it imposed limits on both donations and spending. As in the 2011 elections, eligible contestants also received public funding.

Although the law allows for private financing of the election campaign, it is restrictive in relation to how such funds can be used. Advertising in broadcast media is banned, as is the use of billboards and banners, and posters can only be placed in designated areas. Somewhat confusingly, the new Tunisian system included two pre-electoral periods. The law defines an almost four month long “pre-election phase” before election day, but political parties are only allowed to start campaigning activities during the 21 day election campaign period before the elections.

By all accounts, parties largely abided by the restriction only to start campaigning three weeks before elections, although some violations occurred. During the campaign period, campaign rallies, campaigning during market days and door to door campaigning seem to have been the most common approaches. It seems that the Ennahda party spent more than the other political parties. They however did not do very well in the elections, gaining 69 seats, whereas secular-leaning Nidaa Tounes, seen partly as related to the former Ben Ali regime, won 86 seats.

As there was no incumbent government in a traditional sense (only a National Constituent Assembly and a technocratic government whose minister committed not to run for elections), it may be less surprising that abuse of state resources was much less prominent than in the largely farcical elections during the Ben Ali regime. Vote buying did most likely occur, but neither domestic nor international observer groups were able to provide direct evidence of such activities. It seems however that some parties exceeded the spending limits (see the report by the European Union Election Observation Mission report, and in particular the forthcoming I WATCH report).

In both the parliamentary and the presidential elections, the Independent Higher Authority for Elections (ISIE) was mandated to monitor the election campaign, and it delegated some of this task to the Regional Authorities for Elections, which placed monitors on the ground to observe campaign events. Several presidential candidates, however, ignored the requirement to notify the authorities about campaign events 48 hours in advance, making such monitoring very difficult. A large number of violations were reported by the ISIE, though most of these were arguably fairly minor, such as failures to notify the authorities about upcoming campaign events or placing posters outside of designated areas. In contrast to the parliamentary elections, billboards were frequently used by several of the presidential candidates.

As the presidential election was held only one month after those for parliament, it seems that some of the political forces had exhausted their campaign coffers, and the political parties themselves are legally banned from supporting their presidential candidates. According to the Carter Center, many candidates only started campaigning actively during the last ten days of the campaign period. Ennahda did not field a presidential candidate and the main contenders were Beji Caid Essebsi from Nidaa Tounes and interim president Moncef Marzouki. Neither candidate won an outright majority and a run-off election will be held in December.

The recommendations in the immediate post-election statement by the Carter Center included that a review of the legal framework for campaign finance is needed, including “restrictions on campaigning and expenditure limits” and the provision of sanctions in cases of key violations, such as a failure to appoint a financial agent.

Candidates are required to submit financial reports to the Court of Accounts 45 days after the election, but the law contains no requirement for the Court of Accounts to publish the submitted financial statements. Admittedly, the contestants themselves are required to publish information about their finances in Tunisian newspapers, but the law contains no information about the level of details that need to be published, including the identity of major donors. In practice, the publication in newspapers is likely to only include summary and overall information, of limited use to observers of campaign finance in Tunisia

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has been supporting stakeholders in Tunisia to increase awareness about money in politics and to strengthen approaches for overseeing political finance since 2012. Assistance has been given to the Court of Accounts and the ISIE, including trainings and advice on effective control. We have also cooperated with the CSO I WATCH for their monitoring of campaign spending, vote buying and abuse of state resources in the parliamentary elections. The long-term preparations for this monitoring lasted for two years, and when their report comes out before the end of 2014 it will be the first of its kind in North Africa.

Much remains to be done before the role of money in Tunisian elections is fully transparent and does not impair pluralistic competition. However, the progress that has been recorded in Tunisia so far outshines the other countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

Dr. Magnus Ohman is the senior political finance adviser of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. You can read more about him and his work here.

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