01 May 2019
Tunisia is five months away from a third round of legislative elections and six months away from presidential elections. From an institutional perspective this demonstrates very clearly the success of Tunisia’s process of democratisation, as voters will go to the polls to elect a new parliament and a new president in what are going to be the freest and fairest elections across the Arab world. With many other countries in the region experiencing a return to authoritarian rule or mired in brutal civil conflicts, Tunisia appears as an oasis of stability and democratic governance.
What good is winning the elections if the inability to address socio-economic issues persists?
A recent visit to Tunisia though also confirmed that the institutional perspective of ‘Tunisian success’ is not the only one through which the country should be a looked at. The coalition politics of the past few years, the break up of Nida Tounes and the perpetual transhumance of elected MPs from one party to another have left many ordinary Tunisians disappointed with democratic politics. This might be simply a sign of the growing pains of Tunisian democracy and disillusionment with political parties and elected officials can be found in many established democracies as well. However, worsening economic conditions are contributing decisively to increase the distance between citizens and institutions. I arrived in Tunis soon after the government had increased the price of petrol for the fifth time in just over a year, sparking protests and complaints. At the same time it was dealing with a strike of workers at petrol pumps and truckers. The public outcry for the death of twelve babies at a Tunis hospital in March 2019 had not yet subsided, revealing the crumbling state of the health sector. At the same time, the demands for increased funding in higher education on the part of researchers and professors highlight the failings of the education system. All this points to the further degradation of the economy of the country and the complaints from citizens. Despite the projected number of tourists increasing in 2019, the sector is one security threat away from collapse.
While there are many new political, social and economic initiatives that pop up across the country and that benefit from the liberal-democratic nature of the regime, they seem too few and far between to have a genuine national impact. This has profound implications for the upcoming elections. Turnout was not particularly strong in 2011 and 2014, hovering just above 50% of eligible voters. While some contend that this might not constitute a significant problem in a democratic system, its legitimacy should nevertheless be questioned particularly in a young democracy where enthusiasm for change should be considerable. This does not appear to be the case in Tunisia, with growing disillusionment likely to impact turnout negatively Nahda MPs are confident the party will top the polls in October and possibly in November, but what good is winning if the inability to address socio-economic issues persists? Despite its failings though, it would be unfair to blame only the Tunisian political class. International actors have done very little to support Tunisia and only the security sector attracts the interests of foreign powers. There are countless NGOs and IGOs operating in Tunisia, but they do not seem to make much of a difference to the majority of ordinary Tunisians.
The transition to democracy has been a tremendous institutional success. Will it take another generation before the socio-economic fruits of this success are visible?
Francesco Cavatorta is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the Université Laval in Quebec, Canada. In addition to the ‘Arab Media and Transitions to Democracy’ research project, he has worked on numerous collaborative research projects in the Arab World. Visit his profile here.