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Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears
Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?

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

Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?

Divisions within Tunisia’s political leadership are preventing the government from addressing the country’s political and socio-economic challenges. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to support measures that will prevent further polarisation.

Tunisia’s political transition is in trouble. Hopes that the country’s post-uprising leadership would successfully tackle its myriad of political and socio-economic challenges have started to dim. The economy is in the doldrums and the political leadership is increasingly split between Islamists and non-Islamists, both competing for control of state resources. This confluence of problems is stirring a general crisis of confidence in the political elite, and there is reason to fear that the country may backslide from its post-2011 democratic opening ahead of presidential and parliamentary polls at the end of the year.

As Tunisia’s main trading partner, and in the context of its European Neighbourhood Policy, the EU should:

  • Continue its macro-financial assistance despite the government’s slow pace in implementing necessary reforms (eg, pension reform, reducing the public-sector payroll, improving the business climate and greater fiscal transparency, among others);
     
  • Encourage the government to prioritise public-administration reforms, introduce greater transparency in public-sector appointments and transfers, and establish clear rules governing relations with senior administrative officials – all steps that can help prevent further polarisation between Islamists and anti-Islamists;
     
  • Encourage parliament to reach agreement on creating a politically diverse Constitutional Court to ensure its independence;
     
  • Resist attempts to restore an authoritarian regime by, for example, conditioning continued financial support to Tunisia on the legislative and executive branches’ respect for the constitution.
     

An Ailing Economy and Polarisation at the Top

The economy is faring poorly. The Tunisian dinar has depreciated by more than 40 per cent in relation to the euro since 2016, reducing purchasing power, while inflation stands at 8 per cent annually. As a result, the cost of living has increased by more than 30 per cent since 2016, driving households into debt. Regional disparities are growing, and unemployment remains dire. These factors combined have accelerated both a brain drain and capital flight.

These economic troubles occur at a time of severe tensions between President Béji Caïd Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, which have grown over the past two years. Their rivalry has laid bare an old rift between Islamists (mainly the An-Nahda party) and anti-Islamists (represented by Nida Tounes, the president’s party), with Chahed, who originally hails from Nida Tounes relying on the Islamist bloc’s parliamentary dominance to remain in office.

An-Nahda has been in coalition governments since 2011, but from 2016 onward, when Chahed became head of a national unity government, the party has worked hard to strengthen its power by placing a growing number of its supporters in senior posts in the public administration, state-owned companies and government offices and agencies in the capital and provinces. In doing so, it is changing in its favour the composition of patronage networks controlling state resources and access to credit, private monopolies and oligopolies. Over time, this inevitably will reduce the economic predominance of coastal northern Tunisia over the southern hinterland.

An intensifying struggle over resources would further deepen the rift between Islamists and anti-Islamists.

In May 2018, An-Nahda made headway in local elections. It won 28 per cent of municipal council seats (against 20 per cent for Nida Tounes), including in all the main cities. The next month, it took charge of the administration in 36 per cent of all municipalities (compared with 22 per cent for Nida Tounes). This partial victory boosted the party’s political weight, altered the balance of power vis-à-vis its principal opponent, and raised a question mark over the tacit agreement between Islamists and anti-Islamists in place since the 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections. By this unwritten agreement, An-Nahda had accepted less power than its electoral weight would suggest it should have, with just three ministries, none a major one; it had also agreed not to interfere with the established patronage networks, for example by placing its backers in senior executive positions.

Its electoral show of strength triggered a response from an inchoate coalition of senior figures in government, business and professional associations and trade unions, as well as far-left activists and Arab nationalists. They started to pressure the interior and justice ministries to classify the Islamist party as a terrorist organisation, and on the military courts to dissolve it and imprison some of its leaders. They also began reaching out to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in hopes of soliciting these two countries’ support against An-Nahda, whose leader, Rached Ghannouchi, is a leading intellectual figure among the regionwide Muslim Brotherhood, their staunch enemy. The resurfacing of this rift invites a return to Tunisian politics of political competition that has dominated the Middle East and North Africa region since 2013 – between Turkey and Qatar, representing the Islamist bloc, on one side, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other.

An intensifying struggle over resources would further deepen the rift between Islamists and anti-Islamists. It also would significantly heighten political and social tensions ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections later this year, which could well prove decisive in shaping the country’s political and economic complexion for the next decade. Because of a split in the secularist camp, An-Nahda’s enduring popularity among large sectors of the population and its dominance of governing institutions, the party remains the favourite to win at least the parliamentary elections. Even were this scenario to pass, the Islamists’ power could be circumscribed. It will need to cobble together a governing coalition, and optimally will be willing once again to forgo key ministries and maintain its tacit agreement with the anti-Islamists. An-Nahda’s influence would be further curbed were it to put up a presidential candidate and loose.

However, other scenarios are possible. If tensions come to a head before the elections, violence could get in the way of the electoral process. This could prompt the president to declare a state of emergency, as provided for under the constitution, but without additional constitutional checks, this could put Tunisia back on the path of autocratic rule. For this reason, it is critical that the parliament establish a Constitutional Court, which would adjudicate whether the state of emergency can be extended thirty days after its entry into force. The court should have a politically diverse composition that might help to prevent it from endorsing such a move. Indeed, under this scenario, the absence of a Constitutional Court could plunge Tunisia into dangerous waters.

An EU Role in Preventing a Dangerous Backsliding

The EU is Tunisia’s main trading partner and has provided important financial support to the country (between 2011 and 2017, EU assistance to Tunisia amounted to € 2.4 billion in grants and macro-financial assistance). It has a clear interest in protecting Tunisia’s stability, to fortify one of the only – if not the only – success story to emanate from the Arab uprisings, dampen the appeal of jihadism to Tunisians, and limit illegal migration to Europe. It follows that, despite the disappointing pace of economic and political reforms (pension reform, reducing the public-sector payroll, improving the business climate, greater fiscal transparency, advancing negotiations about the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, creating the Constitutional Court and replacing four members of the Independent High Authority for Elections so that this body can move forward with organising the legislative and presidential elections of late 2019), the EU should continue to provide macro-economic support to prevent the situation from deteriorating even further.

In addition, it should encourage the government to prioritise public-administration reform, render public-sector appointments and transfers more transparent, and introduce clear rules governing its relations with senior administrative officials – all steps that, by reducing the role of partisan patronage would help prevent further polarisation between Islamists and anti-Islamists. It should also encourage political parties to reach agreement in parliament about the composition of the Constitutional Court, thus enabling its establishment. And it should use its influence to counterbalance any domestic or externally-inspired effort to restore an authoritarian regime by making continued financial support to Tunisia conditional on the legislative and executive branches’ respect for the constitution.