Credit : Seif Koussani. May, 2018

Seven overseas districts did not register even a single candidate for Tunisia’s upcoming legislative elections on December 17, 2022. When the next parliament’s new deputies take office, seven seats will be unoccupied from the get go. Furthermore, a significant number of Tunisians living overseas will not be represented by elected officials. The new division of voting districts in addition to the new requirements facing candidates, including the requisite for obtaining 400 certified sponsors, had the effect of dissuading TRE from coming out with candidates.

Following the amendment of Tunisia’s electoral law, the number of overseas voting districts was increased from 6 to 10. France is now divided into three districts instead of two; North America, South America and the rest of Europe were dissociated; Asia and Australia were fused into one district. The Arab world and African continent each constitute a single district. The number of seats in parliament, on the other hand, decreased from 217 to 161.


An absurd requirement


« It was predictable; whoever decided the electoral law did not take into consideration the difficulty of collecting 400 sponsors », says Haythem Benzid, communications officer for the association Al Bawsala. Benzid observes that « Requiring 400 certified sponsors from vast overseas districts where Tunisians are spread out reduced their chances of running for elections. There are districts where the required number of sponsors constituted 60% of the voting body. How could these districts possibly come out with candidates? » Finally, Benzid notes that the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) had initially set the requirement at 100 sponsors; the presidential decree-law quadrupled this number.

Abdennaceur Laaradh, a candidate from the France I voting district who did not make it into the next legislative elections, says as much: « In overseas districts, the number of required sponsors should have been proportional to the number of registered voters. For example, sub-Saharan Africa encompasses 700 Tunisians, and the required number of sponsors is 400 ». For Laaradh, « TRE have suffered a double penalty ». As he explains, « First of all, the number of seats representing TRE decreased from 18 to 10. Second of all, the requirement for candidates to gather 400 sponsors is absurd and unfair ». Laaradh is the candidate for the Echâab Movement, a party that supports the July 25 process and all of its ensuing decisions.

Mounira Ayari, a former deputy of the Democratic Current from the America-Europe district, expresses the Tunisian diaspora’s concerns regarding the announced results: « The diaspora is disappointed to not be represented in parliament. The requirement for candidates to obtain 400 sponsors further complicated the process ». She added, « I’m a resident in Switzerland, where several people wanted to run in legislative elections, but they were not able to collect the required number of sponsors since voters are not concentrated in the same zone ».


The ISIE opts for convenience


According to Abdennaceur Laaradh, the problem lies in voter registration methods. « The ISIE opted for the convenient choice. It used the address on voters’ national identity cards (CIN) [without taking into account possible changes in address, editor’s note], which prevented them from submitting their certified sponsorship to overseas consular services. Furthermore, thousands of TRE between the ages of 18 and 25 do not have a CIN, but do have a passport, which is considered proof of identity. Depriving 20% of voters from sponsoring candidates is scandalous. We feel like second-zone citizens! »

« We are not a third wheel », says Khawla Ben Aicha who served in parliament for the 2014-2019 term representing Machouû Tounes for the district France I. In an interview with Nawaat, she voices skepticism of the new electoral law: « We don’t understand the logic behind the new division of voting districts. We had clearly defined districts, why reduce this number as well as the number of seats in parliament? »

Ben Aicha also expresses her concerns regarding the sponsorship requirement: « Tunisians abroad are not very accessible. You have to move around from one place to another to meet them and listen to their concerns. During the previous term, deputies from the same district divided up tasks among themselves in order to move around and meet their voters. For districts with one candidate or others without a single candidate, how can a deputy fulfill his duties? »


Role of representation, limited


At the heart of a deputy’s work: representing the people through the adoption of draft laws and elected officials’ availability to meet their voters. « It is our job to ensure that the voices of Tunisians abroad are heard. We explain to them the laws that have been adopted in parliament, and understand their concerns perfectly », says Ben Aicha, who cites the example of the law adopted in 2015 granting women the right to travel with their children without asking their father’s permission.

Formerly a deputy serving in Tunisia’s dissolved parliament, Mounira Ayari lauds the work carried out by the representatives of TRE in the previous term: « We made an enormous effort during the Covid-19 epidemic. We contacted embassies, consulates and customs for the repatriation of Tunisians. We collected donations, worked on individuals facing S17 travel restrictions, and shed light on the issue of people without a passport ». She concludes that « not representing the Tunisian diaspora in parliament is a blow to diplomacy ».

Haythem Benzid anticipates that the absence of representatives for the Tunisian diaspora will affect legislative work. « Parliament reflects the legislative priorities of its deputies. Having a parliament with a male majority or whose composition is incomplete will inevitably impact the ensuing laws and debates » Benzid remarks.

Partial elections are a conceivable solution to fill parliament’s seven empty seats, although the law does not provide for legislative elections upon the inauguration of a new parliament. What’s more, there is no guarantee that new candidates will actually run given the steep requirements which already dissuaded them in the run up to upcoming elections. However, changing the rules of the game in order to reduce the required number of sponsors undermines the very principle of equal opportunity for all candidates. The ISIE and presidential office thus face the risk of arriving at a legal impasse, thereby confirming the arbitrary nature of the entire electoral process.