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Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears
Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Strengthening Institutions in Tunisia
Strengthening Institutions in Tunisia

Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears

Tunisia’s presidential election highlights the multiple divides that trouble the country and region. Unless the winner governs as a truly national leader, representing all Tunisians and not just his base, current tensions could escalate into violence.

I. Overview

The standoff between incumbent President Moncef Marzouki and former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi in the second round of the presidential election, scheduled for 21 December 2014, has revealed fault lines in Tunisian society that political elites believed they had bridged with their sense of consensus and compromise. The electoral map emerging from the parliamentary elections and the first round of the presidential election shows a country divided between a north that is largely pro-Essebsi and his party Nida Tounes, and a south that is in majority pro-Marzouki and favourable to the Islamist party An-Nahda. In order to prevent mutual fears from escalating into violent confrontations, the winner of this first free and competitive presidential poll will have to begin by acknowledging the fears of the loser’s electorate. The new president, government and parliament should commit to jointly address the question of regional imbalances and counter risks of institutional deadlock and 0f repression of dissent.

Fed by the occasionally incendiary rhetoric of the two candidates and their entourage, a number of national traumas repressed by years of dictatorship have resurfaced. The myth around the office of the head of state, forged by over a half-century of an all-powerful presidency, has returned in force and is exacerbating an ideological confrontation nurtured by old wounds: the brutal eradication of the Islamist movement under deposed President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali; violent conflicts dating from the independence era (between supporters of the first president, Habib Bourguiba, and those of his sworn enemy, Salah Ben Youssef); antagonisms between social classes; rivalries between established elites (from Tunis and the east coast) and emerging ones (from the south and the hinterland).

Moreover, the respective allies of Marzouki and Essebsi see their confrontation as another battle in a regional cold war, notably over the Islamist question. Tunisia is thus an echo chamber of the ideological conflicts that are shaking the region, from the Syrian trauma and the rise of the Islamic State in the Levant to the violent polarisation in Libya and Egypt. The concerns of all parties – over the return of dictatorship and repression on one side, or reinforcement of the north/south divide and the spread of chaos on the other – are being amplified by the national sensitivity to the fate of other countries of the “Arab Spring”.

As a prelude to a charter of political accountability guaranteeing, among other issues, the preservation of democratic gains and a joint effort for greater balance between regions, the defeated candidate should, for example, address an open letter expressing his fears (and those of the electorate) to the winner, who would commit to respond publicly. Defining the fears of both sides could contribute to calming tensions, in particular if the scores of the two candidates are close.

Such a step could be followed by the commitment of the government, the presidency and the People’s Representative Assembly (the parliament) to address together the most widespread anxieties in society. Their adoption of a charter of political accountability informed by the presidential candidates’ exchange and addressing the fears of both the losing candidate’s base and other citizens would help Tunisia resolve the contradictions between order and liberty and overcome the inevitable challenges ahead. The international community should encourage such an initiative that would seek to prolong the spirit of consensus that prevailed for much of 2014 without masking the genuine disagreements that divide society. This would particularly help reduce the noxious fallout of regional polarisation. In the context of the meagre harvest of the “Arab Spring”, Tunisia remains the last hope for a successful democratic transition. The country and its allies have every reason to ensure that Tunisia continues on its exceptional course.

Tunis/Brussels, 19 December 2014

Strengthening Institutions in Tunisia

Tunisia is in limbo between two different forms of government, deepening socio-economic difficulties for many citizens and putting the country’s security at risk. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group proposes that the EU and its member states use their influence to persuade Tunisia actively to promote economic growth and speed up government restructuring.

This commentary on strengthening institutions in Tunisia is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

While Tunisia’s democratic transition continues, socio-economic unrest driven by rising costs of living and laggard economic growth, combined with the government’s struggles to strengthen institutions, puts the country at risk of sliding back into authoritarianism or instability. The EU should focus on helping promote economic growth and supporting institutional reform, notably persuading Tunisian authorities to establish and protect the integrity of those bodies mandated by the January 2014 constitution.

Socio-economic unrest contributing to nostalgia for a strong state

As the protests that rocked parts of Tunisia in mid-January showed, socio-economist discontent remains high as the cost of living steadily rises. Those protests were triggered by opposition to tax and tariff hikes intended to balance public finances. The economy has deteriorated since 2016: growth is slow (between 1 and 2 per cent), inflation seems to be rising faster than the official rate of 6.3 per cent and the trade deficit remains high despite a depreciating currency. As Tunisia enters an electoral cycle with municipal elections in May 2018 and parliamentary and presidential elections expected in 2019, economic grievances are moving to centre-stage in national politics.

Nostalgia for the old regime is spreading, as is a discourse that claims the revolution has impoverished the population, while politicians divide the country’s wealth among themselves.

A weak economy increases the danger of riots, which could force Tunisian policymakers to find short-term solutions akin to those of the old regime: repression of protesters and dissidents, marginalisation of civil society forces such as trade unions, and centralisation of power in the hands of a strong executive. The harshness of daily life and the deterioration of public infrastructure (transport, health and education) means ever more Tunisians believe that only a strong, ideologically homogeneous executive authority – a hyper-presidency, in other words, similar to that of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – can save the country. They consider the institutions created in the wake of the 2010-2011 revolution artificial, ill-suited to Tunisian political culture and dysfunctional. A commonly held view is that democracy has not taken root; instead, power is dispersed, corruption rampant and political debate useless. Many Tunisians are focused on coping with their daily lives, evincing no interest in politics. Several polls suggest there could be record abstention rates in the forthcoming municipal elections. Nostalgia for the old regime is spreading, as is a discourse that claims the revolution has impoverished the population, while politicians divide the country’s wealth among themselves.

A constitution awaiting effective implementation

The current order has been made more fragile still by the government’s foot-dragging in implementing vital elements of the 2014 constitution. The Constitutional Court, the only institution constitutionally mandated to declare the temporary or definitive vacancy of the presidency, has not yet been established. Its absence means that were the president, who is 91, to become unable to fulfil his functions or pass away, any transfer of power would be unconstitutional, perhaps opening the door to an authoritarian takeover. President Béji Caïd Essebsi has pledged to establish the body before the end of 2018.

Likewise, independent bodies conceived in the wake of the 2010-2011 uprising as checks on poor public administration (including the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication, the Authority for Human Rights, the Authority for Sustainable Development and the Rights of Future Generations, the Authority for Good Governance and the Authority for the Fight against Corruption) still do not exist. Nominally independent administrative bodies that are in place lack autonomy from the government and political parties. For example, pressure from Tunisia’s ruling coalition on the Independent High Authority for the Elections has already led to postponement of municipal elections. More generally, government officials and political leaders have blocked the process of decentralisation mandated by the constitution from starting in earnest.

The gap between constitutional principle and political reality is widening. But a renewed debate on the revision of the constitution, a step that President Essebsi and several political figures have suggested, would be a mistake. Amid the country’s political and economic turmoil, such a debate would be akin to reopening hostilities between the parties over core political and social issues.

What the EU can do

The EU has influence in Tunisia, where it is already supporting anti-corruption and decentralisation efforts. It should go further, both in helping the country’s economy and in developing incentives for the government to counter the short- and medium-term danger of authoritarian drift. This should be done as part of its Privileged Partnership with Tunisia, and during its review of political priorities ahead of the EU-Tunisia Association Council, expected to take place in the first half of 2018.

A first priority are measures to diminish risks of potentially destabilising socio-economic unrest. In this context, the EU should encourage the government to urgently address regional inequalities, putting this question at the centre of economic reform efforts. In particular, short-term measures to deliver economic relief should be paired with longer-term efforts to encourage investment and job creation in Tunisia’s southern and interior provinces.

At the same time, the EU should continue to encourage the Tunisian government and parliament to establish the Constitutional Court and speed up the restructuring of the electoral authorities. If those bodies were firmly ensconced, they could fulfil their mandates in the event of a presidential vacancy and in accordance with the constitution. The EU should discourage any attempt to alter the constitution before the 2019 legislative and presidential elections.

While a return to the past is not the most probable scenario, outside actors could make it likelier, especially if the internal situation continues to deteriorate. The United Arab Emirates promotes a polarising anti-Islamist political discourse in the Tunisian media, which could gain resonance if additional jihadist attacks occur. Neighbouring Algeria, which considers Tunisian stability a matter of national security, has supported the ruling coalition between Islamists and secularists in place since 2014. But more recently it has appeared to waver from this course, and could be tempted to back a tougher regime – one with greater presidential power, more intrusive intelligence gathering and harsher repression – to prevent public rioting, terrorist attacks or a political crisis. The EU should play a more active diplomatic role to counterbalance these influences and promote the more inclusive and open polity to which the Tunisian uprising gave birth.