ABA ROLI, Tunisian Bar Association Work for Fair and Transparent Elections

October 2011 

For the first time in generations, on October 23, Tunisians had the opportunity to vote in real democratic elections. In the months leading up to the elections, the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) coordinated with the Tunisian Bar Association (TBA) as it worked to assure that elections were fair and transparent.

Kathleen O’Keefe, ABA ROLI legal specialist in Tunisia, was visibly animated as she talked about her work on the TBA’s election response initiative, but she seemed most excited about the passion and ardor of ABA ROLI’s Tunisian partners.

“The enthusiasm for making sure these elections are free and transparent,” she said, “I can’t even describe it.”

After decades of elections rigged by former President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and his Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party and following Ben Ali’s ouster, election fever had taken hold of the Tunisian legal community. As the October elections drew nearer, the TBA was fully focused on ensuring the vote to select the Constituent Assembly—the body which will draft a new Tunisian constitution—was unmarred by corruption and coercion.

ABA ROLI has been working in Tunisia since June, helping the TBA’s electoral response project. ABA ROLI cooperated closely with a team of five TBA members. The group drafted a comprehensive Tunisian election law handbook for lawyers, trained lawyers and established a real-time election legal response team. The handbook delineates and explains the country’s legal provisions surrounding electoral conduct and provides advice on interpreting contentious or unclear statutes.

“We made a list of potential gaps in the election law,” said O’Keefe, “and then the team decided to note the gaps and provide interpretations of them in the footnotes.” She said that the handbook addresses lawyers’ questions on how to apply the law in cases where it doesn’t specifically address a problem. ABA ROLI and the TBA trained lawyers interested in election law, including those who later served in the election legal response team, on the book. About 90 of the lawyers trained in Tunis, Sousse and Sfax helped staff an election helpline, receiving, recording and tracking voters’ complaints and addressing their questions.

While ABA ROLI contributed comparative expertise to both the handbook and election response center initiatives, the hard work and dedication of ABA ROLI’s Tunisian counterparts made the efforts possible. O’Keefe said, “They [Tunisian lawyers] are aware that the world is watching Tunisia, and the sense of ownership of this election and the intense commitment that it not be stolen is so obvious.”

To learn more about our work in Tunisia, contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at rol@americanbar.org

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