In the week running up to Denmark’s general election on June 5, three politically-active Tunisian women spent five days shadowing Danish parliamentary candidates. They had been invited to Denmark by KVINFO, with support from the Danish-Arab Partnership Programme (DAPP).
But already halfway through the trip, Nessrine Laamari found herself impressed by Denmark’s political climate.
“There is a very relaxed atmosphere at the election rallies. It’s a new concept for us that you debate political subjects during election campaigns,” she says.
At 28 years old, Nessrine Laamari is the youngest member of the Tunisian parliament and is running for re-election in October. A member of the secular party Machrouu Tounes, she entered politics after becoming engaged in the 2011 revolution as an activist in the organisation Woman and Citizen.
“In Tunisia, election campaigns are about personal attacks and the atmosphere is always very heated. You don’t exchange opinions in the same way as we have experienced here,” she adds after witnessing parliamentary candidates Martin Lidegaard (R), Anna Libak (V) and Karen Ellemann (V) in action during the last leg of their election campaigns.
Another of KVINFO’s guests, Basma Khalfaoui, is also running in the Tunisian parliamentary elections in October. The trip was designed to provide politicians with both inspiration and concrete tools to use when they kick off their own election campaigns.
Panel debates made an impression
Exactly one week before the Danish general election, the three Tunisian women accompanied MP Karen Ellemann to an election debate in the canteen of the company BRAVIDA in Brøndby.
Here they witnessed a 90-minute panel debate in which Ellemann was joined by Serdal Benli (SF), Matthias Tesfaye (S) and Rasmus Jarlov (K). The debate format left an impression on the Tunisian politicians.
“Before I came to Denmark, I had not experienced a panel debate, but it was very nice and when we return, I will suggest that we also host panel debates in Tunisia,” says 48-year-old Basma Khalfaoui.
She adds that it will not be easy to convince the other parliamentary candidates to participate, however, as some parties refuse to debate concrete political issues during election campaigns.
Basma Khalfaoui is a candidate for the leftist party Mouvement Tunisie en Avant and it is her first time running for parliament. She has worked as a lawyer and served as a human rights defender for many years but has now chosen to enter into politics.
“I became a politician the day my husband was murdered”
After the panel debate, Karen Ellemann sat with the Tunisian guests in BRAVIDA’s backyard. Around 60 members of staff milled about and ate hotdogs that were being prepared on the grill. As the sound system was being taken down and the tables and chairs were being packed away, we sat in a huddle, connected by mutual interest and a deepening empathy.
“How did you find your way into politics?” Besma Soudani – the third Tunisian guest – asked Karen Ellemann.
Besma Soudani is a defender of women’s rights and chairwoman of the organisation Ligue des Electrices Tunisiennes (LET). Besides training female political candidates for parliamentary and municipal elections, LET also works more broadly to increase female participation in Tunisian politics.
Speaking in French, Karen Ellemann describes the day she got angry. The number of pupils in her daughter’s class was once again set to increase and – during one of her many protests – someone told her she should get into politics.
Before that, she had been a member of the political party Venstre but had not yet decided to take any action.
Both Nessrine Laamari and Basma Khalfaoui could empathise – it only takes a spark of interest to light the fire of engagement. But everyday life and the pathways into politics are quite different in Tunisia.
“I became a politician the day my husband was murdered,” states Basma Khalfaoui. Her husband, Chokri Belaid, was one of the leading, leftist opposition politicians. And he was murdered in front of his home in February 2013.
The murder shook Tunisia – a country that was still trying to find its feet in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution.
Six years on, the murder of Chokri Belaid remains unsolved.
“I realised that I had the ability to handle a very difficult situation – to react and take action in the moment. I asked everyone to stay calm and avoid violence, and that made me famous,” explains Basma Khalfaoui.
Equal opportunities, not special treatment
Karen Ellemann’s thoughts on taking responsibility resonated with Nessrine Laamari.
“I chose to enter politics because I feel a responsibility for Tunisia and for finding the best solutions to its problems. I agree with Karen Ellemann 100 percent when she talks about having the will to act, and that being a female politician comes at a price,” she says.
For Nessrine Laamari, this means taking the decision to postpone having children.
“Running an election campaign is tough. You travel around and work non-stop and that doesn’t align with being pregnant,” she explains.
The mood around the table in the BRAVIDA canteen further improved when it turned out that all four women agreed against the need for gender quotas that dictate the number of women in parliament.
“We want equal opportunities, not special treatment,” they say almost simultaneously.
Demands for equal gender distribution on ballots
Since 2011, several changes have been made to Tunisia’s electoral law to give women and men the same opportunities to be elected into office.
The electoral law does not specify how many women should be elected into parliament, but it does dictate the gender distribution on ballot papers.
According to Tunisian electoral law, a party’s candidate list must alternate between male and female candidates in order for it to be approved. This means that about half of a party’s candidates need to be women.
Changes to electoral law is one of the reasons why Tunisia has managed to increase female representation in political institutions over a very short period of time. 36 percent of Tunisian MPs are now women, which is almost the same as the Danish parliament.
Same challenges – different debates
During their time following Danish politicians, Nessrine Laamari and Basma Khalfaoui were struck with the realisation that politicians in Denmark and Tunisia are concerned by many of the same challenges: the environment, retirement, social issues and security.
“We just discuss it differently. Here debates are very calm and democratic and that is positive to experience. We really want to debate that way in Tunisia as well,” says Basma Khalfaoui.
She was most surprised by a debate on security issues, between parliamentary candidates and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Martin Lidegaard.
“It was very free and open. In Tunisia, security issues are almost taboo. It is such a sensitive topic meant for security forces only – not the general public,” says Basma Khalfaoui.
Trust is the vital difference
For Nessrine Laamari, the trust she experienced between politicians and voters was the most surprising revelation from the trip.
“Candidates answer questions from voters and the voters accept their replies. They don’t become angry and start accusing the candidates of lying and cheating. That trust is incredibly important,” she says.
Since 2011, Tunisia has witnessed large-scale political changes and many surveys point toward increasing mistrust of politicians and political institutions.
“It’s a big problem in Tunisia that people don’t participate in political work or vote at elections because they consider all politicians to be the same – corrupt. We would like to build that trust in politicians and the political system,” Nessrine Laamari adds.
Basma Khalfaoui agrees, and adds that building trust is the most important insight she will take back home.
“We have a long list of mutual challenges. We discuss the same problems, but trust is the biggest difference between Denmark and Tunisia. It’s trust we are lacking in Tunisia. Trust is the cornerstone of democracy – it is the most important factor in the relationship between politicians and voters,” she says.