Refreshed or Disrupted? Tunisia’s Democracy After the Elections

Author: Michael Meyer-Resende, DRI Executive Director

Tunisia’s young democracy has been much celebrated as one of its kind in North Africa and the Middle East. Indeed, it has a lot to speak for itself. Its constitution, adopted in 2014, offers credible democratic guarantees. It enabled an outsider with no political machinery behind him to become President and new parties were elected to parliament. One could be tempted to consider Tunisia a consolidated democracy, but that would be premature.

Looking beyond the headlines, Tunisian democracy faces serious challenges. Indeed, many Tunisians have lost faith in democratic institutions, in particular in the political parties. They regularly declare their dissatisfaction with the status quo in opinion polls. In the parliamentary elections held a few weeks ago, only 41% went to the polls. Young Tunisians especially stayed at home in large numbers.

The elections have resulted in a massive fragmentation of the political scene. The moderate Islamic Ennahda party, the strongest force since 2011, remains ahead of others, but it only won 24% of the seats in Parliament compared to 32% in the 2014 elections and to 41% in 2011. The other main party, Nidaa Tounes, essentially disappeared from the political scene. After the 2011 revolution, it seemed as if the main split in the country would be between liberal-secularist forces and Islamic conservatives. In 2019 the scene is so fragmented that it is difficult to identify any major fault-line.

If anything, popular anger at the political class’ inability to deliver economic progress and allegations of corruption appears to be the most potent driver of electoral mobilisation. Kais Saied’s campaign played to these sentiments. He had no party machinery and no money behind him, he travelled modestly through the country and spoke to Tunisians as an equal rather than as a politician. His social conservatism plays well with many voters in this conservative country.

Curiously, economic reforms are not at the core of his platform as one would expect. Instead, playing to the public fatigue with democratic practice, he promised a whole new system of politics and representation. Instead of electing parliament directly, Tunisians should exercise direct local government, which would then send representatives to make up a national parliament. There is thus a paradox in these results: The man who benefitted most from the openness of Tunisia’s democracy won by promising to change it altogether.

Will he manage? In Tunisia, the President has prerogatives in foreign and security policies, while other aspects of domestic policy are left to the Prime Minister and his cabinet. The President can propose legislation, so he could suggest a complete political overhaul, but he would need two-thirds of the parliament to change the much-celebrated 2014 constitution.

However, in this unique situation, Saied may become more powerful than the constitution foresees. For starters, a single actor will always be at a great advantage vis-à-vis a multitude of actors with different interests. Saied may be able to forge a strong supporting majority out of the fragmented parliament in which many MPs do not have strong political allegiances.

Saied will also rely on the powerful mandate he won in the polls. His sudden ascendancy is a result of the political fragmentation. In 2014 the two lead candidates won the first round of the elections with 39% and 33% respectively. This year Saied won the first round with only 18% of the votes. However, he turned this modest result into an overwhelming victory in the second round, where 72% of the voters supported him in a context of much-increased turn-out. Data show that many more voters under 45 years old turned out in the second round.

The big question for Tunisia’s democracy is now is what this victory means for Saied’s role as President. Did all his voters support him to implement an overhaul of state institutions and will he so dominate the system now that its checks and balances start suffering, even if he does not pursue an authoritarian agenda? Or should one interpret his big win as a sign of trust in an honest and uncorrupted person and a rejection of his opponent, who was seen as sleazy by many voters?

Will Saied now invest his political capital into overhauling the 2014 constitution, when indeed most Tunisian seem desperate for better economic prospects rather than debates about political institutions? Changing the 2014 constitution would stop an endeavour that has only just started. Some institutions, such as the Constitutional Court, have not even been created and, most importantly, the country has only begun to decentralise power from the centre to local communities.

Certainly, friends of Tunisia’s democracy should take note of these elections’ message. The establishment of credible democratic institutions that secure – among other things – ground-breaking elections is not good enough for many Tunisians. They feel that this democracy has not delivered enough tangible benefits to them. They hope their new president will. Let’s hope he succeeds, without reversing what has been achieved so far.

Photocredit: Congress of local and regional authorities/Flickr

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