Al Bawsala organized debates between elected representatives and citizens during the drafting of the new Tunisian constitution in order to promote dialogue and understanding between these two groups.
Al Bawsala is a local Tunisian NGO that was established to offer citizens the means to stay updated about politics, provide them ways to defend their fundamental rights, and build relationships with elected representatives and decision-makers in order to work towards the establishment of good governance practices and political ethics. During the drafting of the new Tunisian constitution in 2013, Al Bawsala organized debates between elected representatives and citizens. These debates allowed citizens to voice their opinions, concerns and recommendations regarding the new constitution but also gave elected representatives the opportunity to directly interact with citizens and explain constitutional matters.
Al Bawsala organizes discussions and debates in different Tunisian regions. The organization invites the elected representatives who represent the area where the debate will take place to participate. They try to make sure that the invited representatives represent different political affiliations. Once the event is organized, Al Bawsala advertises it with the help of local community groups. In order to facilitate the debates, Al Bawsala provides transportation for the elected representative to and from the event location. An Al Bawsala member moderates the debate in order to keep it focused on the constitution building process. After the event, a video report of the debate is posted to the organization’s YouTube channel for documentation and so it can reach a wider audience.
Al Bawsala has confronted several challenges while holding these debates. First, it has not been easy for the organization to reach their goals for citizen attendance to the events. This may be attributed to insufficient promotion and advertising prior to the event. In order to fix this problem, Al Bawsala is exploring different ways to build stronger relationships with local organizations in the communities hosting the events. In this way they hope to engage more citizens in the debate.
Appropriate moderation of the debates has been another challenge. Elected representatives have a tendency to talk too much which gives the local citizens less opportunity to participate. Sometimes the debate becomes uncontrollable and aggressive because of angry citizens trying to voice their concerns. Well-trained and qualified moderators are necessary to overcome these difficulties. A good moderator can communicate well with participants and lead a goal-oriented discussion.
After a successful debate, citizens felt that elected representatives were listening to their problems and opinions. This creates a sense of ownership of the new constitution, which is important to its success. At the same time, elected representatives were reminded that they have an important responsibility in reflecting the voices of their constituents at the assembly, and made aware of the opinions of those constituents.
The debates also helped citizens understand the meaning of a constitution and why it is relevant to their rights and lives. They became more aware of the constitution-building process, which could eventually help them be more involved in the wider political discussion and developments in Tunisia.
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This tactic can be used as a part of a big strategy to promote citizens’ political participation, openness and good governance. It can also be used to measure public opinion and get direct information and opinions from citizens regarding a new constitution, a new legislation or policy that will directly affect their lives and at the same time raise their awareness of the issue. By providing direct contact between citizens and their elected representatives, the debates encouraged citizen involvement in the new constitution and diminished the downsides of representative democracy. Organizations that consider this tactic should be aware of the challenges that Al Bawsala faced, namely regarding publicity and effective moderation, and prepare to address them.