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Tunisia’s election is a wake-up call

AP Photo/Slim Abid
Tunisia’s President Kais Saied votes in the legislative elections in Tunis on Dec. 17, 2022. Tunisians voted to elect a parliament, to the backdrop of a soaring cost-of-living crisis and concerns of democracy backsliding in the North African country — the cradle of Arab Spring protests a decade ago.

Tunisia’s parliamentary election on Dec. 17 — the first since President Kais Saied’s power grab that reversed the course of Tunisia’s young democracy — has done everything but diffuse the deep-seated fissures plaguing society. Around 89 percent reportedly abstained from voting for a parliament that is now stripped of power, signaling deep disaffection and, with it, the death of the illusion that Saied’s political “project” could finally bring about “bread, freedom and dignity” to Tunisians.

Saied was elected in 2019 advocating a form of “populism from above” that sought to pit elites against the people (who he claimed to represent). In July 2021, Saied put in motion his project by dismissing the government, suspending the top, independent judicial watchdog, and then dissolving parliament. He granted himself emergency executive powers on the grounds of “imminent danger,” an exceptional clause in the constitution, then extended these powers indefinitely. Thereafter, following an opaque consultation process, voters approved — with a low turnout of 30 percent — by referendum a new constitution that entrenched presidential powers and severely limited the prerogatives of parliament. Public opinion polls showed initially that Saied’s actions were supported by Tunisians who were frustrated by a decade of political ineffectiveness and policies that failed to address unemployment and poverty.

The election law recently decreed by Saied ensured that the new parliament would be constituted not by individuals representing their parties but by individuals representing their districts. This law, by creating financial and social constraints on candidates, such as the elimination of public financing of campaigns and prohibition of political party advertising, effectively sealed the fate of Tunisia’s party democracy. And although around five parties and some 1050 candidates ran, 12 of the most influential parties, including the moderately Islamist Ennahda, boycotted these elections, calling into question the overall credibility of the process and Saied’s legitimacy. While Saied once claimed that efforts to advance his paternalistic vision of the Tunisian polity exemplified the will of the people, popular support for it is now difficult to ascertain.

One element that could still upend Saied’s course towards one-party rule is the economy. In the 18 months since launching his project, Tunisia has gone from bad to worse: spiraling inflation, unchecked unemployment, and broad persistent inequalities. A deepening coastal-interior divide has seen the coast prosper at the expense of the interior and slums surrounding Tunis that have been virtually neglected by international investment; here, we are sorely reminded that the self-immolation of a street vendor in 2010 in the impoverished interior of Sidi Bouzid was on account of dire economic conditions. Today, ordinary Tunisians are similarly focused on day-to-day survival. Food prices have skyrocketed in recent months and shortages of basic staples — milk, oil, sugar and even bottled water — have threatened to turn the brewing public dissatisfaction into broader unrest.

That many seemed willing to bet on a benign dictator who promised to improve their lives while centralizing power is not surprising given the prevailing culture of “big state” that purported to provide security, economic opportunity and a social safety net, notwithstanding the political system. The new neutered assembly has even fewer powers, unable to dismiss the government or unseat the president whose bills will prevail over those proposed by parliament members. But most citizens today feel that their quality of life has deteriorated even further than under Ben Ali, and their demands for jobs and access to state resources are largely unmet.

The response in the recent election of a large majority of the electorate — silence — suggests that the benefit of the doubt initially granted to Kais Saied and his crew has eroded. Many Tunisians who initially may have supported Saied now see him as less of a visionary savior and more of an incompetent autocrat who was unable, despite drastic actions taken, to improve people’s lives. For the first time since the July 2021 constitutional coup, they are sending the message that no matter what the election brings, Saied’s leadership cannot solve the grave economic and social problems facing them. Rather than apathy or disinterest, this is a demonstration of passive aggressiveness by a public disillusioned with the political process, whether embodied by Kais Saied or politicians before him.

While this election proves the real failure of the autocratic push in Tunisia, one should not mistake this popular rejection with an embrace of Saied’s opponents. Until there is a coherent alternative, Tunisians will not play along. This should be a wake-up call for all political forces advocating for democracy and social justice to assess what went wrong, regain the trust of the public, and especially, convince Tunisians of the value of re-engaging in the political process, using this moment as an opportunity to build a new, more functional democratic experiment in Tunisia.

Patricia Karam is the regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Republican Institute. Follow her on Twitter @PatriciaJKaram.

Tags Autocracy Kais Saied Kais Saied North Africa Tunisia Tunisia election

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