Tunisian Nidaa Tounes party fails to achieve gender parity in run-up to elections

Tunisia has recently taken the lead in favour of gender parity in the Arab world. Equality between men and women in politics became constitutionally guaranteed in January 2014 when the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) approved the state’s new charter. On 20 August Hafedh Caid el-Sebsi, the son of the Nidaa Tounes party’s founder Beji Caid el-Sebsi, announced he would resign as head of list for the Tunis 1 governorate in the upcoming elections in favour of a woman. Nevertheless, the party, which represents the country’s largest opposition bloc, has in total included only two women has head of its electoral lists for the October 26 legislative elections.

A disappointment for gender parity

 Nidaa Tounes revealed on 18 August the name of its candidates for the next legislative elections, which will determine the new heads of Tunisia’s 24 governorates. Out of its 27 possibilities –some large governorates such as Tunis, Sfax and Nabeul benefit from two lists each – the party had initially placed only one woman at the top of its lists: Salma Elloumi Rekik. Mrs Rekik is a businesswoman, CEO of Stifen, specialised in food production, and Société Cofat Med, a manufacturer of electrical wiring for automobiles. She turned into politics after the 2011 uprising and co-founded Nidaa Tounes in 2012. “Engaging in politics is a duty as a citizen,” she said when the party was launched. She was announced two days ago as representative of the Nabeul 1 governorate. A few days later, Hafedh Caid el-Sebsi’s resignation increased the number of female heads of electoral lists as he said he conditioned his decision to the appointment of a women to replace him. It should be done by the nomiation of Faïza Kefi, a former Tunisian ambassador to Paris. Nonetheless, this number is still too small to answer the Constitution’s dispositions.

The announcements came as a disappointment for Tunisia’s women rights and human rights defenders. The Tunisian electoral law’s Article 23 notably states that “electoral nominations should be based on the principle of parity and alteration between men and women.” Officially, this article should ensure that an equal number of men and women are presented on each governorate’s list. The reality is very different, as Salma Rekik and Faïza Kefi’s cases underline, since political parties do not achieve horizontal parity in the first place, that is to say having an unequal number of electoral lists head by women as by men. The Tunisian online newspaper Kapitalisreacted by saying it was “not enough for a party which declares itself as the liberal and progressive successor of Bourguiba [Tunisia’s first President]”. Habib Bourguiba had passed the Personal Status Law in 1956, making men and women equal in law.

Tunisia : the Arab World’s example?

Tunis had largely been praised for its move in favour of gender equality in society and in politics since the beginning of 2014. “With the new constitution and lifting of reservations, Tunisia has proven itself a leader on women’s rights in the region,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Rothna Begum. Indeed, its new Constitution offers the most guarantees for women’s rights in the Arab and Muslim World, notably through its article 46 which protects “equality of opportunities between women and men to have access to all levels of responsibility and in all fields. The state seeks to achieve equal representation for women and men in elected councils”. Tunis also lift the restrictions it had on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in April 2014.  It is a first in the Arab world, and it pinned high hopes on the country’s capacity to encourage its neighbours to legislate similarly.

However, the implementation of such guarantees has so far been limited. Only 27% of Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly have been held by women since January 2011’s last elections, even if they had represented 48% of running lists candidates. Emna Zahrouni of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (AFTD) explains that political parties tend to appoint men as head of lists, who later constitute the largest share of NCA deputies. For instance, the 2011-elected NCA is composed at 70% by the political parties’ heads of lists. In parallel, it can be interpreted as the continuation of what Ettakatol deputy Lobna Jeribi had noticed while drafting the Constitution : Tunisia’s “struggle to find women to participate in the political process” and the country’s ”culture and mentality of masculinity”. Emna Zahrouni further blames political parties for not “tackling the core of the problem, by encouraging women to participate in political life, and to campaign for the elections.” Nidaa Tounes’ electoral lists highlight the lack of political involvement of women in Tunisian politics, but remains the tip of the iceberg.

 Background : In only a few months, Nidaa Tounes, which was created only two years ago managed to restore a political balance so far dominated by the Islamist Ennahdha party. This opposition block has undergone an amazing ascension by  attracting most adversaries to Ennahdha, supporters of the Destourian movement, trade unionists, leftists and independents, but also former President Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) members. When it was created by Beji Caid el-Sebsi in July 2012, it was introduced as a modern alternative. Recent polls have revealed contradicting results about which party should obtain the majority of votes in October. The ideological differences of its members may slow down its conquest of the Tunisian power, especially after several leftist and independent members criticised the increasing grip of former Ben Ali’s former party senior members on the party. Nidaa Tounes decided in June 2014 not to become part of the Union for Tunisia coalition alongside secular parties for the next legislative elections on October 26 and Presidential elections on November 23.

For further data on the previous 2011 legislative elections, see: Forward

Sources : Tunisia Live I, BBC, Kapitalis, Tunisia Live II, European Forum for Solidarity and Democracy, L’Economiste Maghrébin, Middle East Institute, Tunisia Live III.

Author :  Laura Gounon

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