Nearly four years ago, Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled for his life when the first of the Arab Spring uprisings forced him from power. Most of his ministers were close on his heels, scurrying to save themselves in exile. Many of those who did not flee went into hiding or jail.
Several months later, Tunisia held its first competitive multi-party elections. In that vote, however, Tunisians did not have complete freedom of choice; all the top-level figures associated with Ben Ali’s toppled regime were banned from running—a short-term measure that was designed to protect the fragile new democracy from slipping back toward dictatorship.
On October 26, Tunisians will finally have a real and unrestricted choice at the polls. Several of the remnants of the Ben Ali system—former officials who were not imprisoned and have now come out of hiding—are on the ballot in the parliamentary election. And three former top-level Ben Ali-era ministers will compete in presidential elections in late-November: Kemal Morjane, Mondher Znaidi, and Abderrahim Zouari. The sitting government gave them permission to run in the spirit of national reconciliation and inclusivity.
That decision might seem surprising. After all, in addition to keeping the state running, new democratic politicians must decide how to cope with the cobwebs of authoritarianism. They are inevitably eager to ensure not only that the dictator is removed, but also that members of the dictator’s regime are purged. But more often than not, purges are a serious mistake. As John Stuart Mill argued a century and a half ago, a free marketplace of ideas is necessary to allow citizens to separate good ideas from bad ones. As counterintuitive as it may seem, then, the inclusion in the upcoming election of Ben Ali-era politicians—men who actively supported a ruthless dictatorship—is one of the most promising steps that Tunisia has taken to preserve its democracy so far.
If Ben Ali’s former ministers had been banned, they