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No risk-free democracy

india Updated: Oct 25, 2011 23:12 IST
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'You need a strong man to run the country," whispered Claude Guéant, the French interior minister, into the ear of an eminent expert from the commission charged with overseeing constitutional reform in post-Ben Ali Tunisia.

Since becoming independent from French colonialism in 1956, Tunisia has only ever experienced "strong men" - a euphemism for dictators. But an unprecedented revolution caught the world's intelligence agencies by surprise and swept away the country's second dictator, Zine-El Abidine Ben Ali, and demanded democracy. Now the current obsession of those who look after the future of France - still Tunisia's closest partner - is finding the country a third dictator.

Sadly, there is no lack of candidates. The political class we have inherited from the old regime is full of them, in all shapes and sizes. Just as popular demand for democracy was clear and left little room for doubt, so the transitional government led by Caied Essebsi and his panoply of "committees" was ever more committed to ignoring it, and instead to carry on serving up the old authoritarian menu. But the young people who created this revolution have their own vision, their own programme. The watchwords of the demonstrations and sit-ins held since 14 January reveal a lot about the clarity of thought of the young people who continually reiterate the three urgent unfinished reforms: justice (including social justice), police and media.

These are the first elections Tunisia has known since independence whose outcome is not known in advance. And that scares people. Firstly, it scares the European, and especially French, decision-makers who refuse to accept the risks which come with any free and fair election. Their intervention has taken various forms: consultancy when the electoral law was being drawn up and the voting system decided upon; the material support that they give to certain of the parties who are standing, and to some partners from civil society whose independence is unproven. The provisional government is also afraid of the elections. Its leader tried in September to pass a referendum to limit the term, legislative ability and powers of the constituent assembly. But he had to back down in the face of stiff public opposition and settle for a consensus between the main competing parties.

The constituent assembly being elected faces great expectations, and Tunisians will not settle for cosmetic reform of the political system. The people of Tunisia will remain on guard to see that their revolution is not stolen. Fear has been banished from the hearts and minds of the people of Tunisia. They will inspire other countries, as they have inspired other revolutions.

The views expressed by the author are personal.