How Tunisia's new electoral law sets back women's political rights

6 min read
16 November, 2022

The Tunisian president’s new electoral law - presidential decree Law 55 - issued on 15 September has provoked widespread outrage among feminist and civil society groups in view of the country’s parliamentary elections set for 17 December.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report issued in early November said the new law eliminated the principle of gender parity in elected assemblies from a previous electoral law, which will likely lead to the political exclusion of women.

"The new electoral law, however, replaces the previous proportional representation system by a single-member constituency system without providing provisions aimed at equal gender representation," the report indicated.

"Decree No. 55 runs counter to the 2022 Constitution. The removal of the principle of gender equity is a breach of women's rights in terms of accessing decision-making positions"

Under President Kais Saied’s new law, the next elections will be held by an individual voting system rather than the list-based system. It has no mechanisms to guarantee gender parity in contrast to the constitution, promulgated on 17 August of this year, which explicitly upholds this requirement. Article 51 of the charter clearly says the state guarantees equality between men and women, and that it will work to ensure women's representation in elected bodies.

“Decree No. 55 runs counter to the 2022 Constitution. The removal of the principle of gender equity is a breach of women’s rights in terms of accessing decision-making positions,” Torkia Ben Khedher, vice-president of the Tunisian League of Women Voters (LET), which strengthens the participation of women in the electoral process, told The New Arab.

Referring to the 2014 Constitution, she also noted how women’s representation in elected bodies and the state’s commitment to the protection and promotion of women’s acquired rights, as well as the attainment of parity between women and men in elected councils, were constitutionally safeguarded in Articles 34, 46 but are not reflected in Law 55 today.

Moufida Abbasi, president of Tunisian women's organisation AFTURD, said that the adoption of the electoral law in 2014 came as a result of intense “discussions” among different political groups, and lobbying efforts by rights groups and women’s organisations.

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In contrast, the recently announced law originated from one “single person” [the president] who “imposed” his legislation, centralising power in his hands without prior national deliberations. “The place of women in this law is very uncertain,” Abbasi told The New Arab.

In her view, there is a clear contradiction between what political discourse and legal texts convey regarding the position of women in the public sphere and reality.

“We are in a situation where there’s a woman at the head of the government, to offer a façade to the government, and at the same time a regressive law taking women’s political participation to a minimum level,” Abbasi said, referencing the country’s female prime minister Najla Bouden Romdhane.

Previously, legislative elections were run on a proportional representation system, and the country’s 2014 electoral law mandated that political parties put forth an equal share of male and female candidates on electoral lists. That resulted in women winning 31 percent of 2014 legislative polls, the highest female representation in parliament in the MENA region at the time.

In 2017, an amendment to the electoral law additionally required parties to ensure half of their candidate lists were led by women in local elections, which led to women making up 47 percent of local government after the 2018 municipal elections.

A woman raises a bunch of flowers during the celebration of the National Women's Day in avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, on 13 August 2018. [Getty]
A woman raises a bunch of flowers during the celebration of National Women's Day in avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, on 13 August 2018. [Getty]

Besides dropping the gender parity clause, another concerning aspect of the new law is the introduction of an organisational barrier to candidacy whereby potential candidates must gather 400 nominations from registered voters within their constituencies, 50 percent of whom are to be women and 25% youth under the age of 35.

Critics claim that such a procedure would privilege wealthy candidates and men, making it difficult for women to run for office in a still relatively conservative society where voters are more likely to vote for a man.

Furthermore, the amended legislation precludes public financing of electoral campaigns, with only private and self-financing still permissible, which would favour those with wealthier backgrounds and disempower female candidates who are less likely to have the same financial means and powerful local networks to sponsor their candidacy as their male counterparts, according to HRW.

“We are back to a logic based on family affiliations, clans and lobbies,” said Abbasi, explaining that the new system would advantage those  with the means and power to secure nominations, opening the door to corruption and nepotism. All these changes seriously weaken women’s political participation and contribute to their exclusion.

"Among the 1,058 candidates officially admitted to the legislative elections in December, only 122 (11.5 percent) are women"

The amended electoral law will "marginalise the role of parliament and intermediate bodies and will keep women away from the parliamentary scene," the director of Chahed Observatory for Election Monitoring said in the aftermath of the decree’s publication.

Women’s and civil society groups in the country say the amendments would roll back the gains women have made following the 2011 revolution, and  since Tunisia's independence from France in 1956 when former President Habib Bourguiba enacted the Code of Personal Status advocating for equal rights for women.

Among the 1,058 candidates officially admitted to the legislative elections in December, only 122 (11.5 percent) are women, based on data shared by Tunisia’s election commission (ISIE).

Such a significant decline in the number of female candidates could produce a near-full parliament made up of men.

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“It’s a very hard task for women to put forward their candidacies. The few who have managed to do so despite all the obstacles need to be commended,” Ben Khedher pointed out. “What motivates us at LET is to see these women candidates not ready to give up, determined to participate in all electoral processes,” she added.

Last month, a feminist coalition made up of some ten associations staged a sit-in in front of Tunisia’s electoral authority in protest against the new legislation, denouncing the exclusion of women from the political scene. The movement called for the revision of the law in order to secure parity between men and women in the forthcoming electoral processes.

Opposition parties have already rejected the law, announcing they will boycott the upcoming elections and any polls under Saied's new constitution, which has granted him more powers and removed most checks on his authoritarian rule.

Although the Tunisian leader previously indicated his willingness to amend the law, the ISIE stated no amendments would be brought to it.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec