Tunisians need competent governance, not utopian dreams

Tunisians need competent governance, not utopian dreams

Tunisians failed to reach a consensus last week on who will next lead their eight-year old democracy, still struggling to maintain a foothold post-2011. Despite an increase of nearly 2.5 million registered voters since parliamentary elections in May last year, turnout was a disappointing 49 percent.

No candidate won more than 50 percent of votes cast, so the top two, Kaïs Saïed and Nabil Karoui, will face a run-off next week. They took 18.4 and 15.6 percent of votes respectively, in a crowded field, but their populist credentials, built on anti-corruption and anti-poverty ideals, still failed to energize Tunisian youth.

Populism tends to be heavy on idealism but light on substance for the social and economic realities besetting the young democracy. Unemployment is at 15 percent and a third of university graduates do not have jobs. The government led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed toed the IMF line by implementing spending cuts and tax increases, resulting in a $2.8 billion deal for an economy drowned by the educated jobless. The idea was to replicate Egypt’s lauded reforms but Tunisians responded by taking to the streets in protest at any austerity. Surprisingly, the prime minister stuck to the message of economic rationalization for his presidential campaign, which earned him only 7.4 percent of votes cast, dashing any hopes of a sustained solution to Tunisia’s economic problems.

Elsewhere, an ongoing security crisis builds on tensions stemming from the murder of a prominent opposition leader in 2013 and the deadly attack on a beach resort that claimed 60 lives in 2015. This year there have been three suicide bombings, and Daesh and Al-Qaeda have called for more attacks. There is also the fact that a majority of Daesh fighters came from Tunisia. Their potential repatriation from detention in Syria, Libya, and Iraq poses difficult questions for a leadership already facing a youth unemployment crisis.

In politics, a chaotic government and shifting allegiances in parliament have left two-thirds of Tunisians dismayed by out-of-touch representatives unresponsive to their needs. Tracking the composition of Tunisia’s legislative chamber (ARP) since 2015 reveals dwindling support for Nidaa Tounes in favor of an unaffiliated faction and a pro-Chahed coalition, to the benefit of Ennahda, currently the largest party. In a divided and crowded arena, no one party is guaranteed a parliamentary majority, setting up inevitable political gridlock in Tunis and headaches for every Tunisian.

Whoever becomes president in Tunisia, they will have their agenda subject to a combative legislature roiled by one-upmanship and shifting alliances concerned more with staying in power than on legislative priorities.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

Whoever becomes president will have their agenda subject to a combative legislature roiled by one-upmanship and shifting alliances concerned more with staying in power than on legislative priorities. Parliamentary elections will be held next month and if political “outsiders” with populist messages are energizing the electorate, there is a good chance that independent or non-affiliated candidates will gain more seats at the expense of establishment political parties. The latter, in turn, may resort to undemocratic solutions such as the controversial electoral law reform in June.

The shift is already evident from the presidential election, in which the prime minister, former interim president Moncef Marzouki, interim parliamentary speaker Abdelfatah Mourou and former prime minister Mehdi Jomaa all trailed Kaïs Saïed, who has no political experience or party affiliation and ran no campaign. Additionally, more than 500,000 Tunisians voted for Nabil Karoui, another “outsider,” believing he had what it took to lead the country, despite running his election campaign from behind bars. Karoui was detained in August on allegations of money laundering and tax evasion.

Neither candidate is a stranger to controversy. Saïed’s views on women’s issues may be too bitter a pill to swallow given Tunisia’s progressive credentials as a bastion of gender equality in the Arab world. He also blames Tunisia’s woes on a lack of respect for the constitution, which he would like to change and apply to the letter. He has criticized the lack of independence in the Superior Council of the Judiciary and called for substantive changes to how Tunisians elect their representatives in parliament. The latter probably will not pass muster in a divided parliament averse to changes that could, in the eyes of the opposition, undermine its authority. It is also a little troubling given the authoritarian tinge of amending a constitution to suit certain political ideals.

Shockingly, Tunisia’s educated youth support his platform, which comes with an uncharacteristic asceticism that makes him relatable and easily accessible. His calls to end corruption, whether financial or moral, also register positively with a tired society seeking scapegoats for dimming future prospects.

His challenger’s controversies stem from an illustrious career in the media industry. Regardless, the constant back-and-forth with state authorities concerning his television company, Nessma, criticisms of his charitable activities, along with alleged ties to Algerian military and some Libyan Islamists, have not distracted voters from his anti-poverty message.

If elected, he would be immune from prosecution but only after being sworn in, which is nearly impossible at this point. His center-left Au Cœur de la Tunisiepolitical party is projected to perform well in the legislative elections, which could further boost chances of a coalition that could work to achieve his agenda.

On the other hand, Saïed who calls himself an independent social conservative, may find it challenging to secure support from a legislature resistant to constitutional amendments. Also, without a political party and affiliated legislative election contenders, he may find himself isolated and his administration rendered powerless by an uncooperative parliament.

In the end, it is disappointing that both candidates lack comprehensive economic reform plans, which are critical to easing some of Tunisia’s troubles. One would expect platforms that call for massive investments in infrastructure, a quick way to tamp down joblessness, funded by a combination of debt and slight tax increases. Perhaps concise and inclusive plans to re-size the public sector by quickly expanding the private sector through easing market controls, privatization of public entities and amendment of foreign investment law to attract substantial investment.

More transparency, less corruption and less poverty are indeed important, but what Tunisians need now are not utopian dreams conjured up in the corridors of power. Tunisia must now move away from political idealism in favor of a movement that is receptive to citizens’ needs, quick to act, competent, amenable to change and staunchly defensive of hard-won democratic ideals.

  • 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
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