Tunisia needs International Supervision for the Upcoming July Elections

Tunisia needs International Supervision for the Upcoming July Elections

Two days ago, Dr. Iadh Ben Achour, head of the Tunisian High Council for Political Reforms and the Achievement of the Goals of the Revolution, announced that Tunisia does not need and will not have international monitors for the elections.  I believe this is a misplaced emphasis on sovereignty and a major  retreat from what the interim government (including the President and former prime minister) announced immediately after the revolution.  Tunisia has never organized free and fair elections in the past, and most Tunisians will not believe the results of the elections without international supervision or monitors.
The “sensitivity” about foreign intervention is totally misplaced in this case.  It has been used (and abused) by all oppressive governments and regimes to justify falsifying the elections.  We have been down this road before, under Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saleh, and the other Arab dictators.
True “Sovereignty” belongs to the people, and the best way to protect the sovereignty of the people is to make sure that the elections are free and fair.  Right now, many in Tunisia do not believe that this interim government is capable of organizing truly free and fair elections, and are afraid that the elections will not reflect the will of the people, just like all past elections.
The best way to guard against this is for all Tunisians to swallow their pride and request “international supervision” of the elections with the help of the The United Nations, the US, the EU, France, Germany, the Arab League, as well as numerous
international Non-governmental organizations that have huge experience and expertise in the field of monitoring and supervising elections.  International monitors are the best way, and possibly the only way, to guarantee that the elections will be free and fair and that everyone will accept the outcome of the elections – whether they win or lose.

There are basically three levels of international involvement in any elections:

Level 1 – Observing – This allows the international community to send people to “observe” the elections, while the government controls the whole process and can limit what the observers can see.  This is the minimum level of involvement and basically is just ceremonial.  It will do nothing to prevent the government from falsifying the elections.

Level 2 – Monitoring – This allows the international community to send people to “monitor” the elections, which includes being involved in the design and monitoring of all the phases of the elections process.  The monitors typically have to right to “watch and advise” on every step of the process, but the final decision remains with the government.  This is the medium level of involvement and can make it difficult, but not impossible, for the government to falsify the elections. 

Level 3 – Supervision – This allows the international community to supervise the whole process, and to be involved  in the design, implementation, and monitoring of all the phases of the elections process.  This is the highest level of involvement and basically guarantees that the elections will be free and fair since the international community and the various NGO’s need to be completely neutral in the whole process.

Given that Tunisia has never organized free and fair elections in the past, and given that the people of Tunisia have minimum trust in the institutions of the state and the government (especially the Ministry of Interior) which are still heavily dominated by former RCD members and officials, and also given how critical these elections will be to the success of Tunisia’s transition to a real and genuine democracy, the best way to guarantee that the elections will be free and fair is to organize them under international supervision (level 3). 

Some Tunisians will object to this idea for fear that international supervision will amount to “interference” in the political process or reduction in the sovereignty of Tunisia.  To the contrary, the international community, especially the United Nations, and tens of international NGO’s have amassed decades of experience and expertise in designing, implementing, and monitoring free and fair elections in various countries around the world.  They are much less likely to take sides or to favor one party against the other, since they are vested in credible and free elections.

The Tunisian people are rightly worried about the ultimate success of their peaceful and democratic revolution, and about attempts of the “old guard” to derail it or steal its fruits.   They also have an understandably strong sense of pride and ownership of their revolution.  However, the experience of previous transitions demonstrates that monitoring and other forms of external assistance can not only be delivered in ways which respect the sovereignty of the host country, but that experience actually enhances sovereignty by transferring skills and insights, and boosting the capacity of civil society and other local actors and institutions. 

The International Forum for Democratic Studies recently issued a
Tunisia working group report, which found that on electoral framework and administration, “given past sham elections, there is a serious lack of knowledge and capacity.”  It is doubtful that such knowledge and capacity can be acquired in the next six months or year.  That is why we need to bring thousands of international monitors to guarantee that the elections will be free and fair.  Otherwise, I am afraid that the turmoil will continue, and many Tunisians will not believe the outcome of the elections.

It is crucial that the next elections (to elect the Constitutional Assembly on July 24) be totally free, fair and credible in the eyes of all Tunisians.  There has to be absolutely no doubt about the elections or their outcome, in order for all Tunisians to continue to believe in their nascent democracy, remain engaged in the political process, and avoid further instability or turmoil. This is critical for the success of the democratic revolution and the transition to democracy in Tunisia.

In light of all this, the Tunisian government and all Tunisians should appeal for help from the international community in organizing, implementing, and monitoring the next elections.  In a few years, once democracy is more established and the institutions of democracy are stronger and more credible, Tunisia can hopefully organize free and fair elections on its own.

Successful and credible elections can pave the way for real democracy, and should not be diminished by a misplaced emphasis on ‘sovereignty’.