TUNIS, Tunisia — Noureddine Taboubi, secretary-general of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) — Tunisia’s largest trade union organization to defend workers, with about 700,000 employees — met May 9 with the head of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), Nabil Bafoun, and agreed to set up a joint media plan to move forward with the registration process for the upcoming legislative and presidential elections scheduled for October and November.
The same day, the UGTT issued a statement on its Facebook page noting that its central, regional and local headquarters will be placed at the IHEC’s service. According to the statement, Taboubi stressed the UGTT’s keenness to ensure successful democratic and transparent elections, with a great voter turnout.
Addressing a May 1 Labor Day gathering at Mohamed Ali el-Hammi Square in Tunis, Taboubi made the official announcement that the UGTT will participate in the upcoming legislative and presidential elections. He added that the UGTT has started preparing a socio-economic program with its own vision for the future of Tunisia, which voters can use as a reference to choose the candidate to represent them.
Meanwhile, UGTT official spokesman Sami al-Tahiri told Tunis Afrique Presse May 4 that the union decided to nominate members to head the polling stations and appoint about 2,000 observers, in preparation for the upcoming elections.
Tahiri noted that the UGTT’s national administrative body will later look into the possibility of the UGTT’s direct participation in the elections by nominating candidates, running in the elections or supporting parties.
The UGTT’s participation in the electoral process has surprised many, since the union prides itself on union and social-related work and is committed to defend workers and marginalized classes, away from politics. The UGTT has in the past refused to take part in the elections, although Tunisian law does not prevent unions from participating in the race.
IHEC member Adel al-Barini told Al-Monitor that the UGTT’s announcement was a positive step and a good contribution to the success of the electoral process, since the UGTT is urging people to register and exercise their right to vote.
He said that the IHEC has counted about 800,000 new registrants for the elections.
Barini explained that the IHEC’s partnership with the UGTT is limited to encouraging voter’s registration, noting that the UGTT is still neutral and should it support one political party at the expense of another during the electoral campaign that kicks off in September, the IHEC would stop dealing with it.
On May 12, former IHEC member Sami Ben Salama wrote on his Facebook page that the UGTT’s participation in monitoring the electoral process and nominating trade unionists to head the polling stations would create an important balance during the elections, especially after the ruling parties had controlled sub-polling stations during the 2011 and 2014 elections.
Munia Ibrahim, member of parliament for the Ennahda movement, one of the ruling parties, told Al-Monitor that the UGTT’s participation in monitoring the elections would add more transparency to the democratic process in Tunisia. She noted that its participation in the parliamentary elections would help support the next parliament, since there will be parliamentarians defending the rights of workers as the UGTT is an essential political and social component.
The UGTT issued a statement April 30 describing the parliament’s performance as “weak, in which personal interest prevail over the public interest,” adding that Tunisia has been wrecked by a deep political crisis over the past eight years.
In the same statement, the UGTT further held the ruling parties responsible for being too preoccupied to provide solutions to the problems plaguing the country, in light of the major political tension against the backdrop of the upcoming legislative and presidential elections.
Khalid Obeid, historian and author specializing in contemporary political history, told Al-Monitor that he expects the UGTT to have a strong presence in all stages of the electoral process, noting that the UGTT decided to take part in the elections this year since it believes its neutrality in the past caused it to remain on the sidelines of decision-making in Tunisia.
The UGTT, along with three other Tunisian organizations — the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers — won in October 2015 the Nobel Peace Prize for their role in the democratic transition in Tunisia in 2013.
Obeid added that the UGTT’s decision comes in response to the government’s failure to meet the demands of voters, whose situation has been deteriorating as their purchasing power, along with the country’s economic and social situation, has declined.
In a May 12 statement, the Karama coalition, made up of independent figures, warned against the UGTT’s participation in monitoring the electoral process affecting the IHEC’s credibility, criticizing the UGTT’s tendency to support one party over another, which makes it a presumptive, non-neutral, competitor in this process.
In the same statement, the coalition called on parties, civil society organizations and political actors to reject one entity taking over the IHEC and exploiting it in a way that does not serve democracy.
Mohamed Jalal Ghadira, member of parliament for the National Coalition bloc loyal to Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, told Al-Monitor that no national organization has ever taken part in elections monitoring before and the UGGT along with all civil organizations must adhere to staying neutral and keeping all parties at an arm’s length.
He explained that the UGGT includes unionists from different political currents, pointing out that the elections in Tunisia are public and all Tunisians have a right to participate.
Tunisia has been the subject of controversy over demands to postpone the elections, which are rejected by several political parties. Namely, Walid Jallad, leader of the pro-Chahed Tahya Tounes, and Ennahda leader Noureddine Beheiri both stressed the need to postpone the elections until further notice.