All eyes on a Tunisian vote to define its future
Tunisians will go to the polls in October and November to elect 217 legislative assembly members and a president to succeed Béji Caïd Essebsi, who is not seeking re-election. Hopes are high that these elections will consolidate the progress made in nearly eight years of democratization since the Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali regime was toppled, and usher in a new phase of stability and maturity of political institutions.
So far, three candidates have said they will run for president—Akram Masmoudi, Nabil Karoui and Kaïs Saied, with the last two polling favorably. Masmoudi is the founder and principal coordinator of the Victory to Tunisia coalition, which aims for greater civic and political engagement by young people. Karoui is a media businessman and owner of Nessma TV, a private Tunisian channel with a footprint that spans North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the Americas. His platform is largely about poverty eradication and seeking greater transparency in politics, which has earned him the moniker “Robin Hood” and a measure of popularity. Some Tunisians believe his success in business can translate to success in politics despite allegations of tax evasion and the suspension of his TV channel by the state media regulator in April for broadcasting without a license.
Saied is a controversial conservative constitutional scholar and lawyer riding a wave of right-wing populism. He seeks constitutional reforms such as increasing the number of legislative seats to 265, to re-instating the death penalty (suspended in 1994) and rejecting equality in inheritance. He has disavowed ties to the Islamist Ennahdha Party and insists on running as a one-man show, which some Tunisians believe earns him a level of credibility that has escaped individuals with ties to the major political parties.
Other potential candidates have not yet declared, but polling firms are already factoring them in. Polls show Karoui and Saied in the lead, followed by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and conservative lawyer and politician Abir Moussi, leader of the Destourian Movement formed from the remnants of the pre-revolution ruling party, which remains nostalgic for the Ben Ali era.
If Tunisia is to remain a beacon of hope and a successful demonstration that democracy can and does “work” in this region, the elections will offer that defining moment.
However, the adoption of controversial amendments to electoral law has dampened the political atmosphere. The assembly voted to erect barriers to “outsiders,” targeting Karoui, Saied and those who were part of the pre-revolution Tunisian government, such as Abir Moussi. Along with the shutdown of Karoui’s TV channel, it is not far-fetched to conclude that establishment political forces are wary of populist candidates and, disappointingly, resorted to undemocratic measures.
Proponents of the amendments argue that independent candidates are not bound by restrictions that established political parties must adhere to, such as limits on political advertising, caps on donations, and bans on foreign financing and the distribution of assistance, money or any in-kind gifts to voters. However, the amendments retrospectively and candidates must demonstrate compliance 12 months before elections, effectively eliminating three of the top four non-establishment candidates.
If Tunisia is to remain a beacon of hope and a successful demonstration that democracy can and does “work” in this region, the elections will offer that defining moment. The past five years did little to inspire confidence in Tunisia’s political leadership. Power struggles have been blamed for the slow progress of reforms such as reducing the public-sector wage burden, pensions, fiscal transparency and improving the ease of doing business, in tandem with negotiations for a trade agreement with the EU, Tunisia’s largest trading partner.
Beyond trade, the EU has contributed about $2.4 billion in macro-economic support and thus maintains some influence in the country’s internal dynamics — if only to curb illegal migration to Europe, discourage the rise of Islamist militancy and protect the only “success” of the tumultuous Arab Spring uprisings.
There are also concerns that escalating tension between Islamist and secular factions in government could force a return to authoritarianism. In last year’s municipal elections the Ennahdha Party took over the administration of more than a third of Tunisia’s municipalities. Placing Ennahdha’s backers in senior executive positions threatened a delicate balance of power between Islamists and self-declared anti-Islamists, since it interfered with political patronage networks that remain a backbone of Tunisia’s political fabric. In retaliation, a coalition of senior government officials, professional associations, trade unions and far-left activists embarked on a campaign to classify the party as a threat and dissolve it because of its ties to the loathed Muslim Brotherhood.
As these rifts widen and tensions escalate, presidential candidates will have to present comprehensive platforms that define Tunisia politically and economically for the coming decade. At the ground level, the Tunisian dinar has lost 40 percent of its value against the euro since 2016 and annual inflation is at 8 percent, leading to a 30 percent increase in living costs. Households are either stuck with austere budgets or sink deeper into debt. As of January this year, 15 percent of the country is unemployed. Even more troubling is the high rate of youth unemployment, given that the 34.8 percent of Tunisians between the ages of 15 and 24 are not part of the labor force. It is not surprising that candidates with messages aimed at eradicating poverty or seeking greater government transparency, accountability, inclusivity and responsibility are popular while incumbents are not faring nearly as well.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell