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What Tunisia’s Elections Mean for Women

By: Monica C. Komer

Tunisian Minister of Women and Family Affairs, 2013 / Source: Government of Tunisia

Kais Saied was sworn in as Tunisia’s president less than two weeks ago. His landslide victory on October 13 marked the end of several weeks of presidential and parliamentary elections in the young democracy. Where do women stand at the end of it all?

October’s parliamentary elections brought a notable drop in women’s political representation. Just 24 percent of the newly (re)elected MPs are women. Previously, women held about one third of parliamentary seats—the highest rate of any Arab country. The decline is even more striking compared to the 47 percent of women elected at the municipal level last year.

What explains this drop in women’s representation? It’s not that Tunisians are suddenly less supportive of female politicians. In fact, trends from Arab Barometer surveys suggest that attitudes towards women are generally improving in the country.

President Saied, a conservative lawyer and political outsider, is a staunch opponent of equal inheritance rights for men and women. Although survey data suggests that most Tunisians also oppose equal inheritance, his stance is a stark contrast to Tunisia’s former president Beji Caid Essebsi who fiercely championed equal inheritance, albeit unsuccessfully. Despite this, President Saied advocated for greater social and economic rights for women during his first presidential address.

Instead, the drop in women’s representation is a direct result of Tunisia’s electoral laws and changing political landscape. Tunisia is among a long list of countries that have adopted gender quotas to facilitate the selection of female candidates for political office. Gender quotas can take different forms—from reserving a specific number of seats for only women to contest, to requiring parties to nominate a certain percentage of female candidates, and even voluntary party quotas where individual parties commit to increasing the proportion of their female candidates.

The effectiveness of gender quotas in electing women to office depends on a number of factors such as the policy design, electoral system, district magnitudes, and so on. It is factors like these that not only hinder the effectiveness of Tunisia’s quota laws, but also produce big swings in women’s representation.

In Tunisia, seats are allocated by a closed-list proportional system. This means that citizens vote for a list of candidates put forth by a party, not for an individual representative. The proportion of votes determines how many candidates are elected from each party list, starting with candidates at the top.

Therefore, the order of candidates on a party list matters. The top candidate is the most likely to get elected, then the second-place is second-most likely, et cetera.

At the municipal and national level, Tunisia's quota law requires all party lists to alternate between male and female candidates. Municipal elections have an additional stipulation that parties must place women at the top of half of their lists.

Requiring gender parity throughout and at the top of party lists is a particularly effective strategy for making sure women win seats. Although it is by no means foolproof, it propelled women to reach near parity at the local level.

The absence of gender parity at the top of lists in parliamentary elections severely disadvantages female candidates. Women topped just 14 percent of lists in last month’s election.

While we might expect the percentage of women elected to fluctuate with their place on party lists, it’s not that simple. Women headed even fewer lists in 2014, yet more women reached office.

This is because party vote share also dictates women’s representation. More women reach office when votes are concentrated among fewer parties. When women are listed in second place, fourth place, sixth place, et cetera, parties must win at least two seats before a female candidate is elected.

Take, for example, a district with 4 seats in parliament. If each seat is allocated to a different party, it’s possible that no women are elected to office. This is exactly what happened in the district of Tozeur in 2014.

Now the partisan landscape is more fractured than ever. Ennahda, a well-known moderate Islamist party, topped the polls with less than 20 percent of votes. Secular party Nidaa Tounes won the most seats in 2014, but it will lose almost all of these seats in the next parliament. Internal splinters left the party barely able to crack 1 percent of votes. These shifts and fractures are bringing new faces into office, while pushing women out.

As long as men dominate the top of party lists, women’s representation will be especially vulnerable to changes in the political landscape and the decisions of party elites.

There are many ways to facilitate women’s political inclusion. While no single reform will eliminate all the barriers that women face, changes to Tunisia’s quota laws would have an immediate impact on women’s representation. Requiring gender parity at the top of lists is an important step to increase the share of women in national level office and mitigate the gendered side effects of a fractured political system.

In many ways the recent elections were a good sign for the young democracy. Competitive elections and peaceful transfers of power suggest healthy and responsive institutions.

President Saied’s calls for greater economic and social rights for women also give reason for cautious optimism. Still, mentions of women’s political rights were notably absent. Until that changes, women’s representation in Tunisia will remain unstable.

Monica C. Komer (@MonicaKomer) is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. Her research focuses on women’s political representation in the Middle East and North Africa.


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