TUNIS // For more than five decades since independence from France, Tunisians have been waiting to vote in a free election. Now the country's electoral commission is asking them to wait a bit longer.
On Sunday an electoral commission set up after the January overthrow of Tunisia's president proposed bumping elections for a national assembly from July to October, quoting operational difficulties.
That poses a problem for Tunisia's interim government, which is struggling to maintain stability while responding to public clamour for a speedy democratic transition.
It remains to be seen whether the government will approve the electoral commission's proposal, which is normally required for elections to be postponed. Cabinet ministers are expected to examine the proposal today, the state news agency said yesterday.
"There are downsides to holding [elections] in July and downsides to postponing them," said a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "All the players in the decision recognise that they have two options which are not the best."
Some political parties want elections to go ahead as planned on July 24, while others support postponing them. Meanwhile, protesters criticise the government for moving too slowly towards democracy.
"The government recognises that it's a transitional goverment and is looking forward to passing the baton to a government that's democratically selected," the diplomat said.
However, the question of how quickly that transition will occur has loomed large since Prime Minister Béji Caid Essebsi first raised the possibility of postponing elections in a televised interview this month.
Those elections are intended to create a national assembly that will draft a new constitution for Tunisia. That is seen as a key step in ushering in a new democratic era after the 23-year rule of president Zine el Abidin Ben Ali, who fled the country in January after a wave of protests.
On Sunday the head of the electoral commission, Kamel Jandoubi, said in a press conference that holding elections in July would not be feasible, the state news agency TAP reported.
The electoral commission needs extra time to set up voter registration centres and train election officials, Mr Jandoubi said. He has proposed October 16 as a new date.
Mr Essebsi has said that while the government wants elections in July, it will endorse whatever the electoral commission recommends.
"Currently, the elections no longer depend on the government since there is a special commission which has been created and is going to prepare the elections," he said on Europe 1 radio last week during a visit to Paris, according to Agence France-Presse.
However, Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, a North Africa analyst at Control Risks, a risk assessment firm in London, said postponing elections was likely to be perceived as an attempt by the current government to cling on power, 'and as such could lead to a backlash in the street.
"The hands-off approach taken by Essebsi in recent days regarding a possible delay shows that the authorities are aware of this," Mr Gallopin said.
Earlier this month anti-government protesters flooded central Tunis, the capital, after a former interior minister said that an election victory by the Islamist Nahda party would provoke a military coup.
Those protests spiralled into days of looting by stone-throwing youths who materialised as police dispersed protesters with tear gas and batons. Hundreds were arrested and a week-long curfew was imposed on the city.
According to some political parties, postponing elections risks inviting similar violence.
Ali Larayad, a spokesman for the Nahda party, quoted by Reuters news agency, said "I am not convinced that an election day three months later than expected is in the interests of the country and its political stability or security."
The leftist Attajdid party also argues that postponing elections could threaten stability and said that its electoral chances could be damaged in the process.
Mahmoud Ben Romdhane, a member of Attajdid's political bureau, said: "From a strictly electoral point of view, we will now have more time to prepare ourselves. But at the same time, our financial resources are limited. The longer we must wait, the more difficult it becomes."
Both Nahda and Attajdid are among Tunisia's better-known political parties, according to a poll conducted last month by the Institut de Sondage et de Traitement de l'Information Statistique, a private research centre in Tunis.
Nahda's long-exiled founder, Rachid Ghannouchi, has iconic status in Tunisia. Attajdid's leader, Ahmed Brahim, was widely regarded the sole opposition candidate in 2009 presidential elections that Mr Ben Ali swept amid accusations of voter fraud.
Smaller parties, however, have argued that postponing July's planned elections will give them time to establish themselves, diversifying Tunisia's political playing field.
According to Communist Party spokesman Hamma Hammami, quoted by Agence France-Presse, postponement would ensure the "true expression of popular will."