Tunisia military, police receive right to vote in local elections

Critics say that involving military in partisan elections would undermine tradition of political neutrality.

October 2014 file picture shows election workers handing ballot boxes to army soldiers

2017/02/05 Issue: 92 Page: 1

The Arab Weekly
Lamine Ghanmi

Tunis - Tunisia’s parliament has ended months of political deadlock over the role of military personnel in the country’s electoral process by granting members of the armed forces and security services the right to vote in local elections.

The question of voter participa­tion by the military was a tense is­sue. Many people argued that bring­ing military and security personnel into the electoral process would compromise their “exceptional” role in maintaining political neutral­ity.

A clear majority of parliament — 144 out of 217 seats — voted January 31st in favour of granting military and police the right to participate in regional and municipal elections as soon as late this year. Servicemen are prohibited from campaigning or taking part in national elections un­der the new law.

Article 6 of the bill, which laid out voting rights for military and po­lice, caused the initiative to stall for nearly a year, delaying the selection of mayors and regional administra­tion chiefs throughout the country. Parliament’s vote ended the dead­lock but not the controversy. Many people continue to question the mil­itary’s place in the political arena.

Among the bill’s critics were for­mer generals and politicians who said that involving Tunisia’s mili­tary in partisan elections would un­dermine a tradition of political neu­trality. Militaries in the Arab world have staged scores of coups over the years but Tunisia’s army has steered clear of domestic or foreign adven­tures during the country’s 60 years of independence.

Critics raised concerns that giv­ing soldiers the right to vote could jeopardise army unity. There has been speculation that broader voter participation by the military and the police, who together comprise about 140,000 people, could tilt the balance in elections against Islam­ists. There were 4.9 million regis­tered voters for the 2014 presiden­tial election in Tunisia.

The vote of the military , despite the small proportion of the total number of voters, would be sym­bolically significant if the military and police engage in politicking and signal their ideological and political leanings.

Anti-Islamist activists had vowed to push for more voting rights for military and police, arguing that parliament’s decision to approve only limited voting measures vio­lates their rights as citizens.

“Giving the military the right to vote only in local elections is a bla­tant breach of the equality right for all citizens before the law,” said former diplomat and anti-Islamist writer Farhat Othman.

Former army general Mohamed Meddeb, who has persistently op­posed the bill because he says the military should be kept away from partisan politics, called the vote “nonsense” and “a sham”.

Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.

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