Holding a free and fair election without violence, Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, has defied skeptics once again and continues its bottom-up democratic transition from despotism. On Sunday, October 26, Tunisians peacefully cast critical ballots in their country’s first full parliamentary election under the constitution they adopted early this year.
With leading secular party Nidaa Tounes (Tunisia’s Call) surprisingly outperforming the moderate Islamist party Ennahda (Renaissance party), the 217 members voted into the assembly will choose a new prime minister and form a new government. Despite the challenging start-up environment, Tunisia, North Africa’s nascent democracy in transition, aspires to be a can-do nation in its struggle to be a full democracy. The country is set to hold a presidential election on November 23.
With turnout of around 60 percent of the about five million registered voters, Sunday’s historic election was a clear collective statement by ordinary Tunisians that they want functioning democracy and greater economic freedom. As a recent Pew Research study indicated, despite waning confidence in democracy’s ability to produce tangible economic and political progress in the country, Tunisians continue to want key features of a democratic system, such as a fair judiciary, competitive elections, and the right to protest. On the economy, about 90 percent of Tunisians surveyed in the study described the country’s current economic situation as bad, with a majority optimistic that the economy will turn around soon.
Tunisia has an opportunity to provide a sound political and economic system that not only benefits Tunisians but reflects a greater possibility for the broader region. That goal is closer for Tunisia than it is for Libya, Egypt, or Iraq. But to realize that opportunity, ensuring security, upholding the rule of law, and advancing economic freedom remains more critical than ever. Tunisia’s new government confronts daunting tasks of rebuilding the economy and restoring the public’s confidence in the country’s ongoing transition.
The United States undoubtedly has a strong interest in helping Tunisia’s “start-up democracy” really take off. Tunisia’s success matters to the U.S., and it is in America’s interest for Tunisia to accomplish its democratic transition in as short a time as possible. A stable and functioning democratic Tunisia in the near term will prove more beneficial for the long-term interests of the troubled region and for the U.S. than hoping for democracy in Libya, Egypt, or Iraq, which is likely to come at much greater political and economic costs.
As Tunisia charts a more hopeful course with its historic parliamentary election, it is time for Washington to reinforce Tunisia’s democratic progress with concrete action, not more political niceties. Unquestionably, Tunisians have come a long way against great odds since a young Tunisian entrepreneur sparked the revolution for greater freedom almost four years ago.
The United States cannot afford to appear indifferent to the fate of liberty that so many Tunisians have pushed for with determination and courage. America must act to ensure the success of Tunisia’s bottom-up pursuit of democracy and economic freedom.