Tunisian Youth Must Not Be Left Out of the Transition Process

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A low youth turnout at the elections may express discontent that could lead to the kind of instability that ignited the revolution.

Tunisia’s parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for October 26 and November 23, come at a critical juncture in the country’s advance toward democracy, and face challenges to yielding an encouraging outcome for the nation’s future. Faith in democracy among Tunisians is at a low point, after five transitional governments that have done little to address the demands of freedom, dignity and prosperity that sparked the revolution in December 2010.

These circumstances accentuate two critical reasons behind the importance of these elections. First, a second free and fair election would be a vital benchmark for democratic consolidation. Consider the case of Egypt. Coercion and fraud marred its second presidential election in 2014, indicative of the country’s stalled democratic transition. Second, the elections also offer a previously unrealized opportunity to Tunisia’s marginalized youth, who have thus far been left out of the political scene to gain agency in the post-revolution period.

Tunisia’s second elections since the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali present a stress test for the new constitution and the opportunity for an electoral transfer of power. Actions taken by political parties, the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) and voters this summer bode well for the election season, and help us identify three conditions that must be fulfilled to confirm the elections’ success. These are ethical and peaceful behavior by the political parties, international validation of the elections’ legitimacy and high voter turnout.

First, 23 political parties signed a pact on July 22 regulating conduct for the electoral process. This is a promising step to ensure the elections are free, transparent and peaceful. Second, the Independent High Authority for Elections has signed an agreement to allow for a European Union election observer mission. Third, over 930,000 Tunisians signed up to vote during the registration period, bringing the total of potential voters to 67% of those eligible, compared to 55% in the first election in 2011.

However, if these three conditions are not realized, the elections may signal eroding public support for the crucial but difficult reforms needed to fulfill the demands of the revolution, and may decrease foreign investor confidence, thus exacerbating the already weak economy.

Public perception of democracy has faded after initial euphoria following the ratification of the constitution in January. The most recent International Republican Institute poll reveals that a record 39% of people feel Tunisia is not a democracy at all. Even a majority of those who consider Tunisia as democratic expressed that they were not at all satisfied with the results of democracy. This sentiment of dissatisfaction is the highest among Tunisia’s youth.


Crucially, youth must not be left out of the transition process. A low youth turnout may express discontent that portends instability of the kind that ignited the revolution. Conversely, high youth turnout may demonstrate a sanguine desire to participate in shaping Tunisia’s future once again.


The youth-led nature of the revolution has not translated into a similar role for young Tunisians in the transition process. Rather, politicians’ failure to address the youth’s chief concern — unemployment — has contributed to a strong feeling of marginalization and distrust in Tunisian politics.

Youth, aged 15-29, make up over 30% of the labor force, but constitute a disproportionate 72% of the unemployed. With an unemployment rate of over 30% that has risen since the revolution, youth understandably feel that their needs are being relegated by politicians who are perceived as merely paying lip service to youth development. Additionally, the age gap between Tunisian youth and politicians, the lack of outreach from political parties to youth and the return of former regime officials to the political scene compound this sense of estrangement.

Civil Society Activism

Ignored by their government, many Tunisian youth have turned to civil society organizations to act as agents of change. Emboldened by a new freedom of expression in the post-revolution period, youth-led organizations have proliferated. I WATCH, a watchdog nongovernmental organization (NGO), is one such group that strives to raise political efficacy in Tunisian society.

Started in 2011, I WATCH works on voter education and election monitoring, as well as improving governmental transparency and fighting corruption. This summer, the NGO was active along with many other youth organizations in promoting voter registration. Forty percent of newly registered voters were younger than 30, signaling a renewed willingness to participate in politics. I WATCH also conducted a poll, whose results reinforce the idea that young people are interested in politics and in contributing to the country’s decision-making, but feel their participation has not been valued. These responses make it difficult to predict the amount of youth that will go to the polls — one of the primary unanswered questions leading up to the elections.

The parliamentary and presidential elections will serve as one measure of the Tunisian populace’s commitment to democracy. Problems with unemployment in the economy and disenchantment with political parties threaten this commitment. A free, transparent and peaceful election season can build a solid foundation of support for economic, judicial, public administration and security sector reforms that are necessary for the country’s democratic consolidation.

Crucially, youth must not be left out of the transition process. A low youth turnout may express discontent that portends instability of the kind that ignited the revolution. Conversely, high youth turnout may demonstrate a sanguine desire to participate in shaping Tunisia’s future once again.

This author believes that dissatisfaction among youth with their current situation will drive them to the polls to actively contribute to the transition toward democracy. This October and November are crucial to reengage Tunisian society to the country’s democratic development. The elections can keep Tunisia on the right path, avoiding the pitfalls of Egypt and Libya’s thorny transition processes.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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