Is Democracy in Tunisia Threatened or is it on the Way to Consolidation?

Ameni Mehrez

On 25 July, Tunisians took to the street to demonstrate against the government and the parliament. The protests were announced on social media right after the Islamist Ennahda party decided to grant all the victims of “tyranny” 3000 billion Tunisian dinars (USD $ 1.84 billion) as compensation for their resistance during the Ben Ali dictatorship. This decision came at a time of economic hardship, political turmoil, and most significantly a collapsing health care system. Following the protests, the President, Kais Saied, announced the suspension of the parliament, using Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution, as well as the dismissal of the Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi. Later, he announced that he will rule by decree and suspended parts of the constitution during what he called an “exceptional period.” The decisions ignited an international outcry regarding the fate of the only Arab democracy in the region. On September 29th, President Kais Saied appointed a new prime minister, the Arab world’s first female Prime Minister. 

Since 2011, Tunisia has been considered a model of democratic transition, with free and fair elections, a multi-party system with strong competition, and freedom of press, speech, and protest. Yet, after a decade of democratization, Tunisia’s path is still uncertain. Angry voices are still echoing across Tunisia’s streets. Despair and frustration towards the political elites are brewing. Political fragmentation and economic stagnation are fueling social and political tensions. 

What is hindering democratic consolidation in Tunisia today despite the major steps already taken during its transition? Two key factors can explain the challenges faced by Tunisia: the fractured political landscape and the stagnating national economy. On the one hand, power struggles between the parties have led to fractured and dysfunctional political forces. On the other, the significant decline in the national economy has deepened socio-economic grievances and fueled societal unrest. The 2011 Arab Spring’s demands of employment and improvement of living conditions remain dashed hopes for many Tunisians.

Political Challenges: Between Party Fragmentation and Consensus Politics

Since the beginning of the transitional period, Tunisia has faced several political challenges. As it moved from a one-party system to a multi-party system, Tunisians had 81 parties and more than 100 independent lists to choose from during elections. In the 2011 election results for the National Constituent Assembly (the main body in charge of drafting a new constitution) more than 20 parties gained seats in the parliament. As a result, the political debate became increasingly fractured. 

In 2012 and 2013, political tensions reached their peak with the Islamists on the one hand wanting to draft a more Islamic-oriented constitution, and secularists, on the other, wanting a secular civic state. To move forward with the democratic transition, and to overcome differences, the Ennahda party and smaller secular parties came together to form a coalition government and approve the 2014 constitution. While this consensus won Tunisia the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015, as well as national and international acclaim, it did not eliminate the deep problems of political polarization. 

The elected parliament of 2014, also called “the Assembly of the Representatives of the People,” had a different composition from the 2011 National Constituent Assembly. Nidaa Tounes, a new secular political party formed by the elected President of Tunisia Beji Caid Essebsi after the revolution, gained a highest number of votes, winning 85 seats out of 217. The Islamist Ennahda party came second winning 69 seats. 

In 2016, another very controversial consensus was reached. The two leading parties, Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda, decided to form a “government of national unity”, a decision later called “the Carthage Agreement.” Although the main aim of the alliance was to stabilize the country and alleviate political polarization, it was met with massive discontent among the people who saw the move as a betrayal of their political trust. Among the serious problems that the Agreement has created is the dissolution of clear ideological divisions between the parties that used to guide voters in their political decisions. The once secular Nidaa Tounes party, which used to oppose and criticize the Islamist Ennahda party, suddenly became an ally. This has further increased political distrust in political parties and the parliament. As data from the Arab Barometer show, distrust in the parliament has significantly increased between 2013, 2016, and 2018. 

[Fig.1. Distrust in the Parliament. (Chart by Ameni Mehrez based on the Arab Barometer Data, Waves from 2013, 2016, and 2018)]

Another characteristic of the Tunisian political system is party tourism. Several party members enter the parliament representing one party, but then switch sides. This phenomenon is very common among Tunisian MPs. For instance, between 2014 and 2019, 87 out of 217 MPs changed their party affiliation (around 40% of representatives). 

The composition of the parliament in 2019 differed significantly from those in 2011 and 2014. First, the Nidaa Tounes party was severely punished by electors and moved from being a leading party in the parliament in 2014 to winning only one seat in 2019. Ennahda came first but secured only 52 seats, with 19% of the votes (compared to 37% in 2011 and 27% in 2014). Newcomers were the main surprise of the 2019 elections: They managed to secure more seats than the secular establishment parties such as Tahya Tounes, Machrouu Tounes, and Nidaa Tounes. The newcomers to the political scene are Kalb Tounes, a party founded by Nabil Karoui, the owner of a TV channel and a businessman, winning 14% of the votes, and the Dignity Coalition, a radical Islamist party, founded by Seifeddine Makhlouf as a reaction to Ennahda abandoning its Islamic roots, winning almost 6% of the votes. No party reached 20% of votes. Such a heterogenous and fractured parliament was disastrous for Tunisia. The parliament remained highly dysfunctional and political debates were completely paralyzed.

Economic Challenges: Socio-economic Woes and the Broken Social Contract

Over the past decade, the Tunisian economy has remained weak despite the change in regime. Weak economic performance, high unemployment rates, high inflation, and stagnation all have led to an economic impasse. 

In fact, the economy shrank by 8.8% in 2020 and national debt has reached 84% as of 2021. Unemployment rates rose from 15% in 2014 to 18% in 2020. 30% of those unemployed are among the young population. In February 2021, Moody’s International credit rating agency downgraded Tunisia from B2 to B3, an alarming development. Poverty and regional disparities have been on the rise. Debt has grown to the point that it is impossible to pay installments and interest rates without obtaining more loans from the International Monetary Fund. 

With the pandemic, Tunisia’s gross domestic product has witnessed a huge decline –  the first of its kind since 1962. Tourism revenues have declined by 61% in 2020 due to COVID-19 lockdowns and mobility restrictions. It is worth mentioning also that the country has been one of the Maghreb countries most affected by the pandemic since the beginning of 2021. 

Tunisia has been experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases since May 2021. Measures undertaken by the government have been insufficient and ineffective to stop the skyrocketing cases. The number of deaths has increased by 217% in six months: from 4784 on the 31 December 2020 to 15,171 on the 30 June 2021. The vaccination process has been too slow because of the lack of vaccines available in the country. By the end of June 2021, less than 10% of the population had received a COVID-19 shot.

The Broken Social Contract

The constant political and economic challenges facing the country since 2011 have had a negative impact on people’s views about where the country is heading. Constant discontent about the state of the economy has been brewing since the 2011 uprising and throughout the transitional period. Tunisians’ satisfaction with the government’s performance has been at its lowest, in particular concerning the economy. According to Arab Barometer Data, 88% of the respondents said that the government is doing a bad or very bad job in keeping prices down, 81% said the same about creating job opportunities, and another 82% about narrowing the gap between rich and poor. When this is compared to non-economic statements, only 40% of Tunisians said that the government is doing a bad or very bad job in providing security and order. These results are a clear indication that the crisis is primarily linked to the broken social contract between citizens and the state. 

[Fig.2. Satisfaction with the Government Performance. (Chart by Ameni Mehrez  based on the Arab Barometer Data, Wave 2018)]

In 2011, Tunisians took to the street demanding economic reforms, better job opportunities, and less corruption. Today, these very demands are still not met. According to the June 2021 Report on Collective Protest, Suicide, and Immigrationby the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, 6798 protests were organized between January and June 2021. More than 80% of them protested unemployment and asked for an improvement in work and life conditions. In January, during the 10 year anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, Tunisians took to the street again to express their dissatisfaction with the revolution’s outcomes and the overall political and economic deadlock. 

In short, having witnessed nine governments since 2011 and a dysfunctional political system unable to meet people’s basic social and economic demands, Tunisians have had no choice but to go back to the streets to express their anger and dissatisfaction with the status quo. While some viewed the anti-government and anti-parliament protests as a threat to the democratic stability in the country, they are instead signs of political resistance and democratic commitment. As the Arab Barometer Data shows, Tunisians are clearly unhappy with their governments, but most of them still think that a democratic system is better than other systems. An exit poll conducted by Emrod company right after the presidential decisions shows that 91% of Tunisians approved those decisions and that 91% of them wanted to dissolve the parliament and to have an early legislative election. 

[Fig.3. Perceptions about Democratic Systems in Tunisia. (Chart by Ameni Mehrez based on the Arab Barometer Data, Waves from 2011, 2013, 2016, and 2018)]

What might the Future hold for Tunisia?

Some have viewed the decisions taken by President Kais Saied as a threat to the only democracy in the Arab World. Others have called for the United States to step up and use its leverage to put pressure on Tunisia. Right now, it is unclear which path the country will follow in the next few weeks or months. 

To be sure, being adrift does not mean collapse. Democratic transitions take time. Political and economic challenges are not unusual in emerging democracies, as is shown by Southern and Eastern European countries’ early transitions from autocratic to democratic systems. One thing to pay attention to from past democratization waves is the relationship between economic growth and political institutions. As several scholars have already pointed out, political institutions are not enough to achieve democratic consolidation. Without economic reforms, the social contract will remain fragile and might even fall apart. In Tunisia, despite the democratic milestones the country has reached, democratic development still remains incomplete. Therefore, there will be no democratic consolidation without a well-functioning economy, and there will be no economic growth without stable and strong political institutions.

To ensure that Tunisia consolidates its democracy, it is crucial to fix not only the dysfunctional political setting but also the corrupt economic environment. The latter is likely to hinder successful democratization if people’s frustration with economic performance and redistribution is not prioritized and if their expectations of what democracy has to offer are not realized.

In collaboration with Oliver Garner and Pedro Perfeito da Silva

Ameni Mehrez is a graduate student in comparative politics at Central European University. She is the chair of the Middle East and North Africa Space at CEU, and she is the Principal Investigator of a post-elections survey fielded in Tunisia, which will contribute to the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES). Website: https://mehrezameni.wordpress.com/

Twitter: Ameni_Meh

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