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Politics aside, youth connect over security and economy issues

As Tunisia’s first free Presidential election is nearing young Tunisians share their thoughts on political strategy and their hopes for the future.

Tunisia, considered a democratic success story, is the only Arab Spring country, which has succeeded in maintaining a relatively peaceful democratic transition since the revolution three years ago ousted former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The Parliamentary Election on October 26 was a democratic milestone, which passed by without major incidents and with approximately 3.5 million, around 69% of the registered voters, visiting the polling stations.

The elections were deemed by both international and national election observers as free and fair. The secular-leaning political party Nidaa Tounes gained the majority of votes, 85 of the 217 parliamentary seats, followed by moderate Islamist party Ennahdha with 69 seats. “I voted for Nidaa Tounes for security,” explained Sheyma Arfewi, a 26-year-old teacher.

Since the revolution Tunisia has struggled with an increase of radical violence. There have been a number of militant attacks on the country’s security forces and some fear that radical militant groups have gained ground in the Algeria border region of Mount Chaambi. Others worry that Libyan unrest may spill over and disrupt Tunisia’s democratic transition.

Security is closely connected to economy, argued 24-year-old Amal Ghadhoum. “One of the reasons I voted for Ennahdha was for their economic program,” she explained. “I trust them,” she said. Now she is hoping that Nidaa Tounes will work hard to restore security. She would also like to see more cooperation over party lines, hoping Ennahdha would get a second chance to govern. Many Tunisians blamed Ennahdha, which gained the majority of votes in the country’s first democratic election in 2011, for the country’s economic stagnation and rise of violent radicalism. “But it is very hard to govern in a post-revolutionary era,” argued Ghadhoum.

Another Ennahdha advocate, Rhouma Ichrak, a 25-year-old student, is hoping the next five years will improve the country’s economy and combat corruption. Tunisia currently has an unemployment rate around 15 percent, which is believed to be the double among the youth. This Sunday she is voting for Moncef Marzouki because “He will assure our country’s freedom,” she said.

The former human rights activist and current interim president Marzouki is a revolutionary figure and expected to receive the support of most Ennahdha members. He is also believed to be one of the most popular candidates among the youth. However, among the 22 (five have withdrawn their candidacy) candidates Nidaa Tounes leader and veteran politician Beji Caid Essebsi is considered the frontrunner. But concerns have been raised about the party’s possible political domination. The party has a mixture of supporters, many who have joined force against another Ennahdha tenure. Members of both former leader Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali’s party RCD have united behind the secular-leaning party. Essebsi himself served as interior minister under Bourguiba and was speaker of parliament during Ben Ali’s regime.

“Many of my leftist friends criticised me because I voted for Nidaa Tounes,” explained Arfewi. To them a vote for Nidaa Tounes meant a vote for the old regime, a betrayal to the revolution, she explained. Arfewi somewhat agreed, which is why she will now vote for leftist politician Hamma Hammami. “The leftists need some power too,” argued Arfewi and emphasised the importance to balance the power. “We need to think about what is best for Tunisia.”

But Ennahdha’s Ghadhoum is not concerned that Nidaa Tounes will become too dominant. “They made promises to the people and the people will not accept anything less,” she said and emphasised that nothing good will come out of polarising the society between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha, “I voted for Ennahdha but my cousin voted for Nidaa Tounes,” she said and added, “We are all in the same boat.”

Many of Ghadhoum’s young fellow citizens are disappointed with their country’s post-revolutionary development and ask what has really changed. Despite decent overall voter turnout, many of the country’s young are believed to have boycotted the democratic process.

“There is no point in voting,” argued 21-year-old student Jbeli Hella, and added, “same life, same lies” and refused to even cast a blank vote. Politicians suddenly appear when there is an election, “they are disconnected to us, their people,” she argued.

However, Master student Hajer Ben Hamida disagreed.

“I voted because it is our duty,” she said and chose to support the rich businessman Slim Riahi and his party Free Patriotic Union, which gained 16 of the Parliamentary seats. Describing his candidature as: “The best of the worst.” Ben Hamida is hoping that Riahi’s policies could bring the country’s economy back on track.

But Hella can’t get over the fact that many politicians are middle-aged men. We need the younger generations to take over, she argued. “Essebsi is 87 years old,” she cried, questioning what he possibly could know about the youth and laughed at Essebsi’s argument that youth is a “state of mind.”

“I don’t want to have an almost 90-year-old man as president,” declared Ben Hamida. Instead Marzouki will get her vote.

If none of the Presidential candidates receive the majority of votes this Sunday a runoff between the two top candidates is expected on December 28.