After two rounds of presidential elections which sandwiched parliamentary elections, Tunisia has accomplished something that has eluded every other country in the Middle East and North Africa: repeated free and fair democratic elections. And while that milestone may renew the faith of many in the trajectory of Tunisia’s democratic transition, the outcome of these elections is a harbinger of more difficult times.

Demonstrators sing the Tunisian National Anthem during a protest in Tunis, Tunisia, Jan. 19, 2011. (Holly Pickett/The New York Times)
Demonstrators sing the Tunisian National Anthem during a protest in Tunis, Tunisia, Jan. 19, 2011. (Holly Pickett/The New York Times)

A House Divided Cannot Stand

The 2019 elections were all about corruption and the perceived failure of Tunisia’s political elite and governing class to deliver on the promises made during the 2014 election cycle, especially with respect to social and fiscal reforms. Many, if not most, Tunisians felt that only an outsider could clean out the endemic cronyism and fecklessness of the status quo. The resulting strong anti-establishment sentiment may also explain the significant drop in voter turnout for the parliamentary elections (41.3% this year as compared to 67.7% in 2014). While no single party came close to winning a parliamentary majority, the moderate Islamist Ennahda (“Renaissance”) party won a plurality (52 seats)—a decrease from the 69 seats won in 2014 and significantly below the 109 seats needed to form a governing coalition.

The next largest party in the new parliament will be Qalb Tounes (“Heart of Tunis”), which won 38 seats but whose political viability is now in serious question. It is the party of Nabil Karoui, the media mogul who was badly beaten in the recent presidential elections and is under investigation for tax fraud and money laundering. It is possible that the Qalb Tounes party fragments further—or dissolves altogether—and its MPs (members of parliament) operate more as individuals than a cohesive voting bloc. As a result, the new Tunisian parliament will be deeply divided with no clear path to the formation of a governing coalition.

Many Tunisian analysts have speculated that the fragmented nature of the new parliament will prevent any coalition from forming in the next four months, as required by law. If that happens, new elections would probably occur in February 2020, but it seems unlikely they would produce a more unified or empowered coalition. Ennahda may try to court some independent MPs as well as some from the Al Karama (“Dignity”) party, which won 21 seats and is believed to be supported by disillusioned Ennahda voters. However, Al Karama’s leader recently stated that there have been no discussions about a possible alliance with Ennahda. Ennahda may also try to woo MPs from Qalb Tounes if that party dissolves or fragments. The most likely path to a governing coalition seems to be an incoherent and ideologically mismatched amalgamation of independent candidates, smaller parties, and Ennahda. The viability of such a coalition is suspect.

Despite the many positive developments and reforms that have occurred in Tunisia since 2011, the country still has significant economic challenges which, if unaddressed, could undermine all the progress that has been made. Major sectors of the economy are still in the control of legacy monopolies that prevent the emergence of a truly competitive private sector. Government public sector spending is excessively high, largely due, in part, to a bloated and inefficient bureaucracy. The national trade union (UGTT) is highly protective of its narrow self-interests and exercises outsized political influence. Foreign direct investment is discouraged by arcane banking and financial sector regulations, which also make the Tunisian currency non-convertible. In addition, “brain drain” and the misalignment of higher education and the job market virtually ensure a dangerous level of youth underemployment and unemployment.

Tunisia’s new parliament will inherit a lot of issues that need immediate and decisive action. Unfortunately, Tunisians are unlikely to see that type of leadership if the stability of the legislature’s governing coalition is dependent on the support of a minority of independents and smaller, inexperienced parties. In such a scenario, smaller parties and independents will wield disproportionate power in the legislature potentially leading to a “tyranny of the minority” and an inability to push through necessary but unpopular reforms. Legislative paralysis and dysfunction seem likely if not inevitable, and at possibly the worst time for Tunisia’s democratic transition.

Challenges Await the Executive Branch

Despite Tunisians’ legitimate disenchantment with the post-2011 failures, the people showed a commitment to electoral democracy. They overwhelmingly turned out to vote for Kaïs Saïed, a retired constitutional law professor, eschewing more established (and conventional) candidates. Saïed received 72.71 percent of the votes and more total votes than all of the candidates and parties in the parliamentary elections combined, according to the official Independent High Authority for Elections. With such an overwhelming popular mandate, one might expect Saïed to be well placed to push through his anti-corruption agenda. However, Saïed is no ordinary political candidate.

Although frequently cast as a political outsider, Saïed is not new to Tunisian politics. He has been a frequent political commentator, which helped make him a national figure despite never holding public office, limited financial backing, and a meager get-out-the-vote effort. His unconventional presidential campaign and the perception that he was not part of the political elite, endeared him to many middle class and young educated urban Tunisians. But the qualities that made Saïed attractive as a candidate could make his presidency quite difficult.

Saïed rejected the idea of starting his own political party and vehemently denounced parties that tried to affiliate themselves, especially Ennahda, which he accused of illegally using his image in their political literature and at rallies. Without an affiliated party, Saïed has no constituents and no natural allies in the new parliament to push through his anti-corruption agenda. To be sure, Saïed has a strong popular mandate and will probably use the power of the bully pulpit to cajole parliament to take certain actions but Saïed is not perceived to be a charismatic leader and the power of the president is circumscribed and arguably subservient to that of the parliament. If Saïed intends to fulfill his campaign promise to bring more direct democracy to Tunisia, he might find himself in open conflict with the legislature—a situation that would only add to Tunisia’s precarious political situation.

Nevertheless, the Tunisian people are expecting a lot—perhaps too much—from their new president. During the campaign, Saïed was never forced to articulate a specific plan for addressing Tunisia’s major political and economic challenges. The relationship between Saïed, the parliament and the UGTT will be determinative of his ability to institute necessary economic reforms.

In his first major speech as president, Saïed was high on rhetoric but short on details. With respect to Tunisia’s economic problems, Saïed alluded to increased help from the Tunisian diaspora community to address public debt but details of this arrangement are unclear. Saïed also mentioned his steadfast support for the Palestinian people, which was a bit peculiar given Tunisia’s geographic distance from the Palestinian Territories and the complete irrelevance of that conflict to any of the economic or political challenges confronting Tunisia. For some, this is a foreshadowing of Saïed’s intention to use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to distract from domestic issues and consolidate popular support—a tactic frequently used by regimes across the region. Given the scope of the challenges facing Tunisia, Saïed will need more than just remittances from abroad and the distraction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his arsenal.

Most importantly, Saïed and the new government will have to avoid the pitfall that has consumed his predecessors: overpromising socio-economic improvements that raise the expectations of the population but are ultimately unfulfilled. Tunisians deserve full transparency about what is possible and the cost they will have to pay to overhaul their economy. The premise that the latter objective can be achieved only through some top-down decisions has to shift to a collective public will for structural reforms. Short of this, no president or government will be able to induce positive and durable change.

The Good News

Despite the many challenges that await the new parliament and president and his government, Tunisia remains a good story. The importance of the peaceful transition of political power for the second time since 2011 cannot be overstated and it reaffirms the message that democracy is not incompatible with Islam or the social values in the region. Tunisia as a symbol, if not a model, for democratic reform is laudable.

While voter turnout for both the presidential and parliamentary elections may have been down slightly from the 2014 levels, overall, voter turnout was still significant. Of course, it would have been more encouraging to see higher levels of youth engagement but the 55 percent voter turnout for the runoff presidential election was positive, especially when one considers some level of voter fatigue following two other national elections in the preceding six weeks.

It should also be noted that Tunisia continues to be an island of stability despite the instability in neighboring Libya and Algeria. The lack of a government in Libya that is capable of exercising a monopoly on the use of force allows for terrorists to plan, train and equip for attacks inside Tunisia. The decline of important trade between Tunisia and Libya has been devastating and the influx of Libyan refugees has placed an undue burden on Tunisia, especially the heavily subsidized health sector. The impact of instability in Algeria remains to be seen but it has the potential to open up more opportunities for terrorists to operate in the Ech-Chambi mountains and reduce critical bilateral trade, especially tourism to Tunisia.

Tunisia’s new parliament, government and presidency will need to find a way to work together in the coming months to ensure Tunisia continues to be a good news story and doesn’t slide backward into the instability that surrounds it.

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