During a week-long visit to Finland six young politicians, recent graduates from the Tunisian School of Politics (TSoP), discussed the state of democracy in Tunisia and why they have decided to become politicians, even when the path is full of obstacles.
“I’m in politics because I am a feminist. Half of the world are women and half of life is female and I believe that women can change Tunisia “, says Bouthaina Elkorbi, member of Courant Democrate, a social democratic party founded in 2013.
Farah Fourati, a young female politician active in Nidaa Tounes, also aspires to change Tunisian society. She believes allowing young people to participate will bring a brighter future for the country.
“I want the voice of the young to be heard, I want them to have a share in public life and to push for changes”, she says, and continues that especially for women, participation in public life is challenging and participation in politics even more so.
Elkorbi and Fourati together with four of their TSoP classmates visited Finland as part of the Tunisian School of Politics -programme. Set up in 2012 by Demo Finland and its partners CEMI and NIMD, TSoP is a comprehensive programme, that entails capacity building of politicians in a multiparty setting and enhancement of multiparty dialogue of Tunisian parliamentary parties. The programme also supports more programmatic work and strategic approach of the different political parties. One component of the programme are the annual School of Politics courses for young politicians. Every year TSoP gathers 50 young politicians from different political parties and offers them knowledge as well as the practical tools for working in politics and understanding the intricacies of a multi-party system. Demo Finland´s Tunisian partner organization CEMI is known for its efficient and unique approach in implementing the professional programme.
These skills, the graduates say, are much needed in a country with a long history of a lack of democracy.
“Tunisia is now discovering democracy. There is no experience in democratic rule and the parties and politicians have no means to deal with these changes. Improving skills and giving them information on the new system and the new constitution, and how to be active in decision-making is important”, explains Haithem Ben Braham, member of the Ennahdha Party.
“The older generation should hand over the torch, it is our turn”
The revolution in 2011, pushed for by the younger generation, has opened the way for them to participate, but the path to politics is still rocky. A new electoral law in 2017 guaranteed participation of both women and young candidates on party lists but climbing to positions of power in parties and really affecting decision-making remains difficult.
Ali Ben Jeddi, activist and member of Front Populaire – Taliaa, thinks that this is the main problem for young politicians in Tunisia – they don’t have equal opportunities to reach positions of power in the political parties themselves.
“The older generations holding power must recognize that young politicians will also have their say within the parties. They should hand over the torch, it is our turn to take power.”
One solution could be a parity law that would enforce equality within the parties, says Yamen Akkari, member of Machou3 Tounes. In his opinion, pushing political parties to apply parity of women and young people within the parties through legislation could lead to them gaining positions of power.
Building a better future through multiparty co-operation
During their busy week, the graduates had a chance to reflect on politics both back home and in Finland.
According to Akkari, the transition from a dictatorship to a democracy has been successful. Still the country faces problems. In addition to unemployment and economic uncertainty, political polarization remains an issue. Akkari believes that multiparty cooperation is the key and hopes that his home country would follow Finland’s example.
“I noticed here in Finland that despite political parties having conflicting ideologies and interests, once in decision-making, they will work together because they know that it is in the interest of the people”, he says.
Training politicians in multiparty cooperation and dialogue is one of the key aspects of TSoP, and it seems to be working.
“Before attending TSoP I was inflexible and did not understand people on the other side of the spectrum. But through TSOP I and my peers learned to accept differing ideologies and to still be able to engage in dialogue. In a sense, it taught us to be rational and to learn how to compromise”, adds Ben Jeddi.
Democracy is an attitude, a mentality, a culture
The revolution ended a long period of tyranny, and though TSoP graduates are hopeful for the country’s future, they also say it will take time for democracy to truly settle in.
“I think democracy is the solution for people to live together with their differences and to resolve problems. But I think it will take time, because democracy is first of all a mentality, and it takes time to change a mentality of tyranny that lasted for sixty years”, says Ben Braham.
Amine Masmoudi, active in the liberal party Afek Tounes, agrees. To him democracy is an attitude, a new culture that Tunisia must adopt.
“We are trying to corporate this new culture in our generation, the older generation didn’t live in it, so we are trying to understand what democracy really is. Maybe now we express it through elections, but in the future, it will have to be a general attitude and culture of participation, of respect of other’s choices and respect of minorities.”
In the end, what it comes down to, democracy is about freedom. Akkari, formerly a part of ruling party of the old regime, says even during the dictatorship he believed in democracy and that it would triumph.
“Democracy gives people freedom, and when you are free you have the capacity to imagine, to create things. In politics, economy, culture, arts – in everything. These values we must preserve and fight for.”
Read more about TSoP and the work of Demo Finland.