As Tunisians get ready to vote in the presidential elections on Sunday, how the candidates made it onto the ballot has prompted judicial inquiries after many citizens found their names, personal data, and possibly signatures were used without their knowledge or approval to nominate candidates.
While volunteers for some presidential campaigns had taken to the streets in early August to collect nominations from voters using persuasion, the apparent nomination fraud scheme suggests presidential campaigns may have collected nominations through other, more illicit means.
On August 19th, IWatch, an anti-corruption civil society group and the local branch of Transparency International, published an article describing the scheme as presidential campaigns “defrauding voters by forcing their names onto list of nominations presented to the election body, in an attempt to reach power through cheating.”
In the same article, IWatch noted that it had received accusations of nomination fraud against 12 of the 26 current candidates for president, including Neji Jalloul, Hamma Hammami, Hechmi Hamdi, Mohsen Marzouk, Lotfi Mraihi, Mehdi Jomaa, Mohamed Sghaeir al-Nouri, Safi Saïd, Omar Mansour, Abid Briki, Saïd al-Aïdi, and Kaïs Saïed.
Meshkal spoke to several citizens who discovered their names had been used to nominate a candidate. They had all discovered it by sending an SMS with their national identification number to *195*. The automated service—set up by High Independent Electoral Body (ISIE) following pressure by civil society groups, according to election observers—would reply with an SMS indicating the name of the candidate the voter had nominated.
“I felt cheated,” Azza Chemkhi, who discovered her name had been used to nominate candidate Hamma Hammami, told Meshkal. “I wanted to withdraw my nomination. I didn’t want him [Hammami] to have my signature because I didn’t give it. It was like fraud…so, I filed a complaint to ISIE.”
“I found myself nominating Mohsen Marzouk,” said Achref Chibani, a freelance journalist in Tataouine who has contributed articles to Meshkal. “It’s not one of my favorite candidates.”
In order to qualify to run in the elections, candidates had to collect 10,000 nominations from ordinary citizens or 10 nominations from members of parliament. Nominations were collected using the full name, national ID number, and signatures of those making the endorsement.
“ISIE received many complaints concerning the forgery of some of the voters’ nominations for the benefit of some candidates and concerning the forgery of nominations from some members of parliament,” ISIE Vice President Farouk Bouasker told Meshkal in a phone interview on Wednesday. “ISIE received these complaints and referred them to the prosecutor. Forging a signature is considered a serious crime according to the Tunisian penal code and it is punished by 15 years imprisonment if the forgery is proven, pursuant to the criminal procedures code.”
Asked whether these allegations of forgery could result in the disqualification of some presidential candidates, Bouasker said the judicial system will be unable to respond to this issue in time to affect the upcoming elections.
“In reality, you know that the judicial and penal measures take time in order to issue a final and fixed decision for conviction or innocence. This…can take up to years. Therefore, the current inquiries in relation to forgery of the nominations have no influence on the upcoming elections,” Bouasker told Meshkal. “ISIE has already announced the final list of candidates. It will announce the winners of the first and second rounds regardless of the judicial inquiries that were initiated and which will proceed until the announcement of a judicial decision.”
“The subject will not be brought up in the future in a serious way, only in the event that the court issues a conviction against a candidate who wins the elections. This scenario is unlikely to occur,” Bouasker added.
Meshkal spoke with Raoudha Rezgui, who tried to collect 10,000 nominations to be a presidential candidate herself. She says she came up short with only about 8,000. Rezgui says she spent all her savings and even sold her car for the expenses involved in getting nominations, and she says the current system is open only to the candidates with money and resources.
“I spent all I had,” Rezgui told Meshkal. “To convince [people to nominate you], they say: ‘I will be with you, but give me money.’ That’s why I sold my car.”
Rezgui, who carries a copy of Tunisia’s constitution with her, campaigned on strong family values and women’s rights as a strategy to stop the pull of extremism for young people. It’s an approach she has worked on in civil society with her NGO, the Tunisian League for Women’s Political and Social Rights.
But her ideas alone weren’t enough to get on the ballot she says, and she had to “go all over and spend money to get signatures.”
“You have to change the system,” Rezgui told Meshkal, adding that all of the campaigns were spending money to collect nominations. “It’s always the same people. The poor people will never make it.”
Rezgui says she has now committed her support to presidential candidate and defense minister Abdelkrim Zbidi.
On Wednesday, journalist Layli Foroudi reported—citing conversations with those who were paid or had received offers to be paid—that the Zbidi campaign is paying people 20 dinars to attend a rally and 50 dinars to follow a campaign rally in a car and honk the horn.
Also on Wednesday, Tunisia’s interim president Mohamed Ennaceur met with the president of ISIE, Nabil Baffoun, at the presidential palace in Carthage, where he “expressed his concern about the offenses recorded so far during this election period,” according to the state news agency TAP.
Citizens Seek Solutions, Change
In order to help citizens who were victims of the apparent nomination fraud scheme file a complaint to ISIE, IWatch posted a link to a model template of a complaint form which citizens could complete and hand in at their local voting centers. According to a statement by the Carter Center, there were “more than 245 complaints from voters who said that their signatures were used without their knowledge.”
Chibani says he learned he could check his name from a news report on Mosaique FM. He isn’t sure how his ID number might have been used, but he speculated a company with access to his ID number might have been involved.
“I felt really disappointed because there is a minimum protection of my data and I feel upset and disappointed because normally we have a [state institution] to protect data,” he told Meshkal.
While Chibani did not file a complaint, Chemkhi did. Chemkhi says she drafted her own complaint form rather than using IWatch’s template. She says she went to her local voting center to submit the complaint alongside her mother and brother, whose names were also used to nominate Hammami. Hammami is a candidate they supported and even volunteered for in past elections but who they do not support this time.
“It was fraudulent and therefore you request ISIE to withdraw that or correct the situation,” Chemkhi said, describing the process as straightforward.
As for the voting center where she filed her complained, Chemkhi told Meshkal that “they seemed to be very aware of it because we were not the only ones and we were not the first ones.”
“I try not to be cynical about that, so yeah I was genuinely shocked and mad when I found out,” Chemkhi said. “I don’t want to have that attitude where I think: ‘Oh well, we’re cheaters anyway,’ and nothing astonishes me and political people are all bad and corrupt and whatever.”
Others say they had no hope of filing a complaint because of the procedural hurdles but also because of general disillusionment with the political system.
“I don’t trust any of the state’s institutions, nor the electoral operations,” said Hamza Hedfi, a student, who discovered that his name had been used to nominate presidential candidate Safi Saïd.
Unlike Chemkhi, Hedfi said he wasn’t shocked when he found his name had been used without his knowledge. Hedfi also checked the nominations of his mother and his close friend, both of whom live in the same building complex. He found they too had nominated Safi Saïd.
“I called my mother [in Tunis] while I was Kelibia and I told her that she nominated Safi Saïd too. My mother laughed, because she expects such things in Tunisia.” Hedfi said. “People didn’t take the incident with shock or surprise…we are used to such things.”
According to Chibani, the solution is to get tough on campaign violations.
“ISIE and the courts, I think both are not strict enough,” Chibani told Meshkal. “I think it’s time to find radical solutions to this problem if this problem is repeated every time we have elections.”
Hanen Zrig and George Gale contributed to this article.