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Tunisian Student Board Election Changes the Balance of Power

TUNIS—A leftist, non Islamist party scored a surprise victory in student elections in Tunisia, indicating a slide from power for the moderateIslamist political party “Ennahda” and an upturn in student interest in participating democratically at universities.

Mawlod Yehia Basha, a professor of law and political science at the University of Tunis, said students will now have a channel to voice their opinions about academic programs, examinations, and university research.

Ennahdha had an overwhelming victory less than five months ago in the elections for the National Constituent Assembly, but their power, at universities at least, seems to be ebbing.

The leftist General Union of Tunisian Students won 250 out of 284 seats across all Tunisian universities, while the Islamist representatives of the very similarly named General Tunisian Union of Students won only 34 seats.  The elections were dominated by male candidates. Out of 1338 students who ran for seats, only 108 were women, according to the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.

Abdul Wahab Hanachi, a philosophy student in Ibn Sharaf University, said the elections showed that students were tired of being dominated indirectly by outside political influences.

After the results were announced, the General Union of Tunisian Students issued a statement stressing that the elections results have proved the failure of outside political organizations that try to control the university by hiding under student union cover. “The way to deal with the young student is only through serious and responsible dialogue and by involving them in all university issues,” the statement said.

Before the Tunisian revolution, some students believed such elections were subject to fraud. Student unions were monopolized and manipulated by the ruling party, said Mohammed Ayman Shayeb, an active member of the General Union of Tunisian Students, the Islamist party. He said that before the revolution, his party was essentially forbidden from participating in university elections: “Now, we are back.”

He explained the party’s defeat by saying that many students didn’t know when the election was. “There was a campaign against us,” said Shayeb. “They said we are militants and spokespersons of the ruling party.” He said administrators and professors pushed students to vote for candidates from other parties, when the academics should have stayed neutral.

The main slogan of the election’s winner, the left-leaning student union, emphasized that universities should be for everyone. Raed Algnecati, a law and economics student at the University of Jendouba and a member of the winning party, said that it would try to restore fundamental principles that should govern university life and that were first declared in the 1970’s, such as wide access to universities, democratic values, and promoting universities as a home for national culture.

“We won the election,” said Algnecati, “but we respect differences of opinion and will work to increase awareness among students and encourage involvement in public affairs.”

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