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Background to Tunisia's bizarre elections with a nine per cent turnout

Last Saturday, Tunisia went to the polls for the first time since the outbreak of a deep political crisis between President Kais Saied and the Assembly of Representatives (Majlis Nuwwab ash-Sha'b), the Tunisian parliament, a year and a half ago. The outcome of the election was shocking but not entirely surprising. Only just under nine per cent of the electorate turned out to cast their votes: the lowest turnout ever in modern political history. In light of the crisis that has now gripped the Tunisian political system for almost two years, the opposition and the largest trade unions called for a boycott of the elections. The Tunisian people, it turned out, heeded that call en masse. As such, the election result can be seen as a direct popular vote of no confidence in President Saied and his government. In response to this dramatic result, the opposition then demanded that the president resign.

A veiled coup in the summer of 2021

The political crisis in question started last summer when Saied sacked prime minister Hichem Mechichi and froze parliament for a 30-day period. Since the latest 2014 constitution, executive power has been shared between the three highest bodies of the Tunisian state (parliament, prime minister and president), which Saied sought to end. After sacking the prime minister and (temporarily) sidelining parliament, he proposed a constitutional amendment that would change Tunisia from a semi- to a fully presidential system.

Reactions to Saied's actions were very mixed. There were both protests against and protests in support of the president's power grab. However, one of the main parties, the army and security forces, sided with the president. Thus, following his announcements, Tunisian security forces blocked access to the government palace, the parliament was surrounded and the parliament speaker, Rachid Ghannouchi of Ennahda, denied access to the building. Ghannouchi almost immediately emerged as the voice of the opposition, labelling Saied's actions an attempted coup and appealing to "the youth of the revolution" and civil society. Nearly ninety-five per cent of voters reportedly agreed to Saied's proposed changes in the referendum. This would permanently end power-sharing and put more unlimited power in the hands of the president. Parliament was given only an advisory rather than a co-legislative and co-governing role.

Exactly 12 years after the outbreak of the Arab Spring

Last week's elections took place on a symbolic date (unintentional or otherwise). Exactly 12 years ago on that day, 17 December, Mohammed Bouazizi - a twenty-six-year-old street trader - set himself on fire in front of a government building in a relatively poor town in the Tunisian interior. Within days, this extreme act of desperation in Sidi Bouzid would lead to a wave of protests spread throughout the Middle East. The Jasmine Revolution, as the revolution in Tunisia would be called and which culminated in the deposition of Ben Ali, was followed by a period of hope. While large parts of the region were caught up in war and conflict, Tunisia was long seen as one of the few countries that had successfully embarked on the path of democracy and freedom. What has gone wrong in the meantime - from that hopeful period just after Ben Ali's departure to these anxious days of political stalemate and (indirect) coup attempts, which Tunisia now finds itself in?

The delicate role of Ennahda in Tunisia's politics

The political stalemate that characterises Tunisian politics and government today can largely be traced to the delicate role of Ennahda in the post-revolution period. Ennahda ('rebirth' in Arabic) is often seen as the most moderate Islamist political movement in the Arab world. After cautious success of Ennahda in local and regional elections, the party was banned in 1989. Many members, including Ghannouchi, fled abroad. Until the outbreak of the Jasmine Revolution, there had been decades of tight repression of the party and Islamism in Tunisia in general. The political unrest and nationwide protests of 2010-11 offered Ennahda the chance to regain a foothold in Tunisia. Shortly after Ben Ali was deposed, Ghannouchi was welcomed back after an exile of more than two decades. His party quickly regained a position of power and relevance, after having been virtually non-existent for a long time. On 1 March 2011, Ennahda declared a legal party, with ever-improving results at the polls - much to the concern and frustration of the secularist parties.

Ennahda as political winner of the Jasmine Revolution

The secularists' fears came true when Ennahda became the largest party in the first free elections in Tunisia's history in October 2011, with 89 out of 217 seats in the Tunisian parliament. Regardless of how secular the system has been or, according to some, should be, for many Tunisians their religion is an important part of their personal identity and therefore logically in political identity and voting behaviour. Despite the strong position that Ennahda had managed to secure, the party was very aware that Tunisia was in a fragile phase of democratic transition after the deposition of Ben Ali. Many party members feared Tunisia's stability and security but also its own survival (given President Sisi's violent repression of islami(s)tic parties and organisations in Egypt).

In 2014, after ruling for three years with two secular parties, Ennahda the 'compelling request' of the secular parties to leave the government, despite their resounding electoral victory. This was due to growing protests and the killing of two opposition politicians from secular parties, where Ennahda was implicitly held responsible for allegedly giving too much space to Islamist radicals. Ennahda then also did not participate in the next presidential election in 2014, but they were part of the government in 2015. Although Ennahda received a high percentage of votes, the party agreed to only one of the twenty-one ministerial posts. After twenty years of invisibility and exile, it chose Ennahda thus chose to adopt a modest, cautious and pragmatic stance. Instead of capitalising on resounding election victories, compromises and a balance between the faith-based politics of Ennahda and the strictly secular approach of most other parties.

No violence, but major economic problems and political crises in Tunisia

Although widespread political violence, let alone the collapse of the Tunisian political system, has been avoided by relatively successful political cohabitation, Tunisia has also run into problems (particularly economic ones) in recent years. Large sections of the Tunisian people are finished with the political class running the country: all parties, including Ennahda, were too concerned with ideological differences and political conflicts than with improving and reforming the economy in the interest of the people. In particular, one takes Ennahda blame the stagnation and problematic economic situation: in Ghannouchi's own words, "the problem with Islamists is that they are valued as opposition but hated as rulers."

In particular, state spending and debt levels are problematic. The Tunisian population is highly dependent on the state as an employer and provider of subsidies. There is also high inflation, resulting in food that is sometimes difficult to afford, and high youth unemployment, leading to very limited trust in politics among young people. The sometimes hopeless situation leads people to risk the dangerous crossing to Europe. Many elements of the revolutionary breeding ground of 2010-11 seem to be present again today.

The roots of the current impasse, now lasting two years, lie in 2019. While Ennahda once again became the largest party in parliament, with fifty-two seats, the independent Kais Saied was elected president that year. However, both camps have fundamentally different views on how to approach Tunisia's current situation - both politically and economically. President Saied has made proposals to cut state spending, by reducing or cutting state pensions, salaries and public subsidies - in line with World Bank recommendations. In doing so, however, he has disempowered the powerful national union, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), against it. Ennahda has expressed solidarity with the union and supports its strikes, despite the aversion within UGTT to islami(s)tic politics in general and Ennahda in particular exists.

Despite these strikes and protests, there does seem to be progress in negotiations between Saied's government and the IMF on reaching a debt plan and emergency loan. An important factor here is the fear in the international community of a (further) collapse of Tunisia. For this reason, people seem more willing to tacitly accept Saied's authoritarian policy by not attaching political but only economic conditions to an emergency loan. This attitude makes the international community vulnerable in negotiations. The Tunisian government may use union opposition to persuade the IMF to water down certain demands or conditions. Both factors are highly problematic and counterproductive. Indeed, without political stability and sound state institutions, the Tunisian economy will never be able to be economically stabilised in a sustainable way.

Since last summer, President Saied has ruled exclusively by decree. Apart from sacking the prime minister and sidelining parliament, Saied has also dissolved the country's highest judicial body and successfully brought the electoral commission under his control. Apart from seeking to consolidate his power, getting an agreement with the IMF is thus a second major explanation for Saied's authoritarian stance: Ennahda indeed, together with the UGTT, constitutes a major obstacle to the implementation of Saied's economic reform plans. Finally, a third aspect relevant to understanding and explaining Saied's actions is the characteristic and ongoing (ideological) tension between secular and Islamist politics in Tunisia. Ennahda controlled parliament until the president sidelined it in July 2021. Initially, there was little opposition from the secular (opposition) parties to Saied's authoritarian tendencies and proposals, precisely because of the fact that these actions were mostly Ennahda would hit.

New election laws as last straw for election boycott

The introduction of new election laws was the last straw, and can be seen as the direct trigger for the opposition boycott. These laws roll back important post-Jasmine Revolution progress and also seek to break the power and clout of organised opposition. First, the new election law removes the diversity criteria that stipulated that every election list must alternately consist of a woman and then a man. Second, it minimises the role that parties play in elections: instead of party lists, it is local and regional candidates who stand for election. Moreover, political parties are prohibited from funding candidates.

The new election law reduces the diversity of candidates and worsens the political representation of the Tunisian people. Of the more than 1,000 people who stood for one of the 161 seats, only 122 were women. Also given the ban on party funding of individual candidates, it is highly likely that it is mostly wealthy businessmen or local dignitaries who end up in the Tunisian parliament, as they already have the means to campaign on their own and do not depend on a party or external funding. As a result, the parliament will be male-dominated after last week's elections - something that, analysts expect, is likely to lead to a weakening of women's rights in Tunisia. In addition, the amended electoral laws will ensure that, in the absence of strong parties capable of uniting MPs around particular issues and positions, the new parliament will be fragmented, inefficient and lacking in clout. As a result, parliament is unlikely to be able to effectively resist the power of the president.

Especially in countries like Tunisia that are in a democratic transition phase, it is risky when that fledgling democracy rests too much on the role of parties. Democratic principles and participation should come as much as possible from the bottom up (bottom-up) are encouraged and developed rather than imposed from above (top-down). In this way, a country in democratic transition is more resilient to the fickleness and lust for power of individuals or parties. The future will show whether the same applies to Tunisia.

Submitted by Niels Schattevoet

Image: Flickr