TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisians recently went to the polls to cast votes in the country’s first municipal elections since the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the 2011 revolution. The Independent High Electoral Commission announced the preliminary results May 10, with independent candidates winning the most votes, at 32.9%, followed by Ennahda with 29.68% and Nidaa Tunis with 22.17%.
Most Tunisians cast their ballots on May 6, but military and security personnel had cast theirs prior to that, on April 29, amid objections to their participation on the grounds that it would lead to political and partisan polarization in the ranks. Military members have not been allowed to vote since shortly after independence, in 1956, and the prohibition was extended to police and state security forces in the 1980s.
Electoral commission head Mohamed Tlili al-Mansri had on April 28 announced the exceptional procedures to protect security personnel choosing to cast ballots, such as not posting lists of voters at polling stations, to shield their personal data. Authorities held off on counting their votes, however, waiting until May 6 to tally them with the civilian ballots. Personnel were also not allowed to dip their fingers in the requisite ballot ink at polling stations for security reasons.
According to the electoral commission's official statistics, 4,249 out of 36,495 registered security and military personnel participated in the elections, meaning military turnout stood at a low 12%. Nonetheless, election commission official Riad Bouhouchi praised the participation of security personnel in exercising their constitutional right, telling Al-Monitor that he considered it added value to the municipal elections.
On Jan. 31, 2017, the Tunisian parliament had approved amendments to the electoral law of 2014 to grant military personnel and security forces the right to vote in municipal and regional elections. While the draft law was under discussion in parliament in 2016, military veterans — including the National Armed Forces Former Officers’ Association and Brig. Gen. Mokhtar Ben Nasr, former spokesman for the Tunisian army and head of the Tunisian Center for Global Security Studies — issued a statement opposing the participation of army personnel in elections, warning it would draw the military into political and partisan rivalries.
The statement asserted, “Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution provides for the complete neutrality of the Tunisian army establishment. We fear that the participation of the military personnel in the electoral process would open the door for politicians to benefit from the situation to mobilize military men into their ranks now that there are no longer any legal impediments to this effect.”
Several security institutions and associations, including the National Syndicate of international Security Forces, a post-revolution organization, had explicitly called for security personnel to boycott the elections or abstain from voting, on the grounds that they should remain neutral in order to be able to maintain order.
In this regard, the union's spokesman, Chokri Hamadeh, told Al-Monitor that security officials had declined to participate and would do the same in future elections. “We refuse to be exploited as a reservoir of votes by the political parties, and we will stick to our role as a national security force. We are solely loyal to our homeland. We refuse to be involved in the battle of partisan rivalries.”
Other security associations, however, welcomed the participation of security and military personnel in the elections this month. Mehdi Belshawesh, spokesman for the Syndicate of Officers of the General Directorate of the Intervention Units, also established after the revolution, expressed appreciation for the Tunisian parliament's decision to involve the security officials in municipal elections for the first time.
Belshawesh told Al-Monitor, “Our security services have always defended this electoral right guaranteed by the post-revolutionary constitution, and our participation in the municipal elections is a prelude to other constitutional gains and rights along the lines of all democratic regimes in the world.”
In Belshawesh's opinion, the 12% turnout among security and military personnel is not so bad for the first round in the electoral experiment. He stressed that many registered voters in the security forces could not exercise their right to vote because they had been on duty in light of the country's delicate security situation and state of constant alert in the barracks and on the border.
While some see the participation of the security and military forces in the May elections as a constitutional right and a historical step forward that paves the way for their participation in legislative and presidential elections, others continue to warn against the consequences of the potential political polarization of these forces under the pretext of constitutional rights.