Tunisia Needs International Supervision For The Upcoming July Elections

Our guest author today is Radwan A. Masmoudi, President of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, D.C. A version of this post has appeared on other sites that follow political developments in the Muslim world.

As head of the Tunisian High Council for Political Reforms and the Achievement of the Goals of the Revolution, Dr. Iadh Ben Achour has declared his opposition to international monitors for Tunisia’s July 24th elections.  He says international “observers”   -- essentially a pro forma intervention -- would be acceptable. This is a mistake and represents a misplaced emphasis on sovereignty and a major retreat from the post-revolution commitments of the interim government—including the president and former prime minister, both of whom recognize that Tunisia has never organized free and fair elections, and most Tunisians won’t accept the election results without international supervision or at least monitors.

The “sensitivity” about foreign intervention has been used (and abused) by oppressive governments and regimes around the globe, helping to set the stage for massive election fraud. 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 that sovereignty is to ensure that the elections are free and fair. Today, many Tunisians do not believe that this interim government is capable of organizing truly free and fair elections, and are afraid that these elections—as in the past—will not reflect the will of the people.

Tunisians need to understand that the hard-won success of their revolution is incredibly fragile. One need only look at Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and now even the military pushback in Egypt to understand that anti-democratic forces in the region are far from defeated. In this context, the best way to ensure that elections are indeed free and fair is for all Tunisians to swallow their pride and request “international supervision” with the help of the United Nations, the US, the EU, France, Germany, the Arab League, as well as numerous international non-governmental organizations that have experience and expertise in the field of election monitoring and supervision. International monitors are the best way—possibly the only way—to guarantee that the elections will be free and fair and that Tunisians will accept the outcome, whoever wins.

There are basically three levels of international involvement in elections:

  • Level 1 – Observing: The international community sends “observers”, but the government continues to control the process and can limit what the observers “observe”. This is the minimum, essentially a pro forma level of involvement. It will do little to prevent election fraud.
  • Level 2 – Monitoring: The international community sends “monitors” who help design and monitor all the phases of the election process. The monitors typically have to right to “watch and advise” every step of the process, but final decisions remain with the government. This is a medium level of involvement and can make it difficult, but not impossible, for the government to commit fraud.
  • Level 3 – Supervision: The international community supervises the whole process, and is involved in the design, implementation, and monitoring of all the phases of the election. This is the highest level of involvement and is the surest way to guarantee that the elections will be free and fair.
In this case, “Level 3” appears to be the best option. Tunisia has never organized free and fair elections, and Tunisians have little trust in the institutions of the state (especially the Ministry of Interior), which are still heavily dominated by officials of the former dictatorship. These elections will be crucial to the success of Tunisia’s transition to a real and genuine democracy. They must be organized and conducted under optimum conditions, and this means international supervision by neutral outside parties.

The Tunisian people are rightly worried about the ultimate success of their peaceful and democratic revolution and about attempts by the “old guard” to derail it or steal its fruits. Understandably, they also have a strong sense of pride and ownership in their revolution and are protective of their sovereignty and independence. The experience of previous transitions, however, demonstrates that monitoring, in the context of international supervision  can be delivered in ways which respect the sovereignty of the host country—indeed, ways that enhance sovereignty by transferring skills and insights and boosting the capacity of local institutions and civil society organizations.

The International Forum for Democratic Studies recently issued a Tunisia working group report, which found that on “electoral framework and administration…there is a serious lack of knowledge and capacity,… given past sham elections". It is doubtful that such knowledge and capacity can be acquired in the next six months or a year. That is why international supervision, including thousands of international monitors, are needed—to guarantee that the elections will be free and fair. Otherwise, I am afraid that the turmoil will continue.

It is crucial that the July 24th Constitutional Assembly elections be totally free, fair and credible in the eyes of all Tunisians. There must be absolutely no doubt about their integrity or fairness, if Tunisians are 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 supervision from the international community including  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. In the meanwhile, progress toward credible elections are real democracy should not be diminished by a misplaced emphasis on ‘sovereignty’.

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