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Tunisian Election Completes Its Transition To Democracy


It became known as the event that sparked the Arab Spring. A fruit vendor in Tunisia lit himself on fire in a form of political protest in 2011. Now today, almost four years later, Tunisians go to the polls in their first-ever, free presidential election.

What's happening in Tunisia is also significant because unlike Egypt, Syria and Libya where mass uprisings gave way to conflict, Tunisia has managed a relatively stable path to democracy.

For more, we're joined by Naveena Kottoor. She's a freelance reporter in the capital city of Tunis. Thanks so much for being with us.


MARTIN: So can you just describe, Naveena, what's the mood like at polling places today?

KOTTOOR: I think the mood among the people who are voting is people are quite happy. I spoke to voters earlier today, and they reminded me of the fact that this is, as you said, the first free and fair presidential election in the history of the country. So I think that the people are coming out to vote here are very proud of what they have achieved and how far the country has come.

I spoke earlier to a student. Her name is Miriam. And she had come quite early to one of the polling stations in a working class neighborhood in Tunis. And I asked her why she had come to vote.

MIRIAM: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: And what is she saying there, Naveena?

KOTTOOR: Yes, one of the things she highlighted was that she really hopes that this country can become a model for the rest of the region. And I think that is something a lot of people who are politically active here are hoping for. Election observers, political parties are aware of how much of the role they play in the region, first for starting the revolution that inspired other revolutions and now for being the only Arab country in the region to have free and fair elections.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the race itself. Who is the front-runner?

KOTTOOR: There's one front-runner and that's Beji Caid Essebsi. He's leading the party that secured the largest share of votes in parliament. And I think it's very likely that he will make it into the runoff. He is not new to politics. In fact, he's been part of the political scene for quite a while. He served under the first president after independence as well as speaker of parliament under President Ben Ali, who was deposed.

Then we have three other candidates who I think have a decent chance of making it to the runoff. One is the current president, Moncef Marzouki, who was in political opposition to the previous regime, who has a strong track record of being a human rights activist. Then there's a communist activist who's called Hamma Hammami, who might also make it into a second round. And then there's a very young candidate, a 36-year-old owner of a football club who also runs a couple of TV stations here. And his campaign has been quite popular as well.

MARTIN: As we mentioned in the intro Tunisia, is unique among the Arab Spring countries. It has actually managed to make this very complicated, Democratic transition. Can you talk a little bit about what is responsible for that? Why has Tunisia been successful where other of the Arab Spring countries have not?

KOTTOOR: Yes, that is the million-dollar question. And I think what Tunisians got right and that's what people who worked with political parties here and academics will tell you is that they decided to compromise at times when it looked like they were divided. And the process of writing a constitution, the transitional process of handing over to another government looked very, very difficult. I think political parties here have learned that compromise and inclusion is more important in a transition than anything else or being in power.

MARTIN: Naveena Kottoor speaking to us from Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia. Thanks so much.

KOTTOOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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