Tunisia: An Empty Gesture Case of Democracy

By Shukery Ahmed and Haris Rashid

TUNISIA’S democratically-elected President Kais Saied’s decision to extend the suspension of parliament on the 24th of August has caused fears that the country’s successful democratic journey is coming to an end. The country, unlike its peers in the MENA region, was initially believed to have had successful and democratic aftermath to the Arab Spring. With its slogan of “Shugl, Hurriya, Karama Wataniya”, roughly translated to “Work, Freedom, National Dignity”, the Tunisian revolution toppled the autocratic regime of Ben Ali and set the country in the course of democratization and economic liberalization. However, democracy has not been able to address pressing socio-economic demands leading to popular support for the anti-democratic policies of the president.

This article explores four features of Tunisia’s newfound democracy: (i) how the legislative and the president were selected or removed (ii) the alternation of power between different governments (iii) who could participate and win in elections, and (iv) the ability and freedom of people to influence policy outcomes of the government. We first summarize the main events beginning from the removal of Ben Ali by protestors in January 2011 to the removal of Hichem Mechichi as the prime minister and the suspension of the parliament in July 2020. Despite high levels of contestation and the ability to influence political outcomes, not much changed for the people in terms of socio-economic factors. In fact, too much energy has been spent on the selection and removal of political leaders. In just one decade, alternation of power took place between three presidents and there have been six alterations between the prime ministers. These alternations have led to slow socio-economic reforms which have made people disenchanted with the way democracy in Tunisia is being carried out, which also explains the popular support for Kais Saied’s recent moves.

The month-long Jasmine revolution that began in mid-December 2010 led to the ousting of authoritarian leader President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in power since 1987. Ben Ali’s removal paved the way for the democratic transition of the country. Tunisia has since held four successful elections and, in an inclusive manner, adopted a new constitution that gives unprecedented political rights and civil liberties to the people. The economic transition, however, was not able to keep pace with the accelerating democratization process. The average annual economic growth between 2011 and 2019 was 1.8 per cent compared to 4.2 per cent between 2000 and 2010. The Covid-19 pandemic also further aggravated the economy where the GDP growth saw a contraction of 8.8% in 2020. Unemployment increased from 15% prior to the pandemic to 17.8% by the end of the first quarter of 2021. Women and young people aged 15-24 are the most affected with an unemployment rate of 24.9% and 40.8% respectively. These worsening socio-economic conditions have made people disillusioned with the promises of democracy. The current president’s landslide victory in the 2019 elections was, in fact, an indicator of growing disenchantment with democracy.

Initially, the uprising against the Ben Ali regime called for improvement in socio-economic conditions. Calls for democratization followed later. The revolution was instigated after a vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, self-immolated on the 17th of December 2010. Bouazizi faced harassment by local police and was prevented from selling vegetables without a permit. The incident provoked protests all across Tunisia forcing Ben Ali, and his family, to flee to Saudi Arabia. An interim government that included ministers from the Ben Ali regime was formed but within days of its formation, all the ministers of the Ben Ali regime were forced to resign by the protestors.

The first post-revolution elections in Tunisia were held in October 2011 for an assembly to draft a new constitution and shape a new government. The moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which was previously banned under the Ben Ali regime, won the polls and formed a coalition government. Moncef Marzouki, a long-time rights activist and outspoken critic of the former president, was elected as president of Tunisia while Hamadi Jebali was appointed as prime minister. In February 2013, in the first political assassination after the Jasmine revolution, secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid was shot dead, prompting large protests across Tunisia. In response to the protests, the prime minister resigned. The cascading series of events finally made the Ennahda party step down and hand over power to a technocratic caretaker government in January 2014. The caretaker government was expected to oversee the elections. Tunisia’s assembly under the caretaker government passed the new constitution later that month. The constitution, for the first time, recognised equality between men and women and guaranteed the freedom to worship. In May 2014, the assembly also adopted the new electoral laws, establishing universal adult suffrage. Also, in order to achieve equal representation for women in elected bodies, the laws require that every electoral list include 50% women and 50% men and ensure they were placed alternately on the list.

In October 2014, Tunisia held its second free parliamentary election in which the secular party Nidaa Tounes won 85 seats while the Islamist party Ennahda secured 69 seats in the new 217-member parliament. Furthermore, Tunisia held its first free presidential elections in 2014 since its independence from France in 1956. Beji Caid Essebsi won the elections by securing 55.68%, defeating the caretaker president Moncef Marzouki. In February 2015, the Tunisian parliament approved the coalition government made of various parties and led by Prime Minister Habib Essid. However, less than two years in power, the prime minister was dismissed in a no-confidence vote in July 2016 for slow progress in enacting economic reforms. One month later, the parliament approved the national unity government led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

In January 2018, protests erupted throughout Tunisia in response to the series of austerity measures and tax increases announced by the government. The government responded with force, arresting nearly 800 people. There were concerns over the limitation of freedom of movement of protestors and the intimidation of journalists by the government. Moreover, in May 2018, in order to establish decentralization and local governance, Tunisia held its first free municipal election since the removal of Ben Ali. The turn-out in the elections was low at 33.7% as most of the young voters stayed away from voting due to disillusionment over the economic reforms. The independents won most of the votes (32.2%) followed by the Ennahda party (28.6%) and the Nidaa Tounes party (20.8%). The municipal elections were mostly inclusive in terms of age and gender. There were 52% candidates under the age of 35 and they made up for 37% of the winners while women made up for 49% of the candidates and 47% of the winners.

In July 2019, Tunisia's first freely elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi died prompting the speaker of parliament, Mohamed Ennaceur to take over as interim president. The presidential elections that were to be held in November were preponed to September. The presidential elections were won by an independent candidate, Kais Saied, who received 72.71% votes, defeating his opponent Nabil Karoui who was in jail for most of the campaign. The elections saw a turnout of 55%. Saied is considered a political outsider and a conservative leader who supports the death penalty and opposes homosexuality and equal inheritance of men and women. Moreover, in the parliamentary elections held in October 2019, Tunisia elected a fractured parliament with two major parties, Ennahda and the newly formed Qalb Tounes party, winning 52 and 38 seats respectively, falling well short of the 109 seats that are required to form the government. In February 2020, Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh formed a coalition government but he resigned in July 2020 after allegations of conflict of interest. Later that month Hichem Mechichi was appointed as the new prime minister.

On July 25, 2021, Tunisia’s president Kais Saied dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspended the parliament on the grounds that the coronavirus and economic situation had become so dire that he needed to freeze parliament and dismiss the government, as well as launch an anti-corruption drive. The president’s move had popular support. Tunisia’s powerful UGTT trade union body with more than one million members said that the president had acted “in accordance” with the constitution to “prevent imminent danger and to restore the normal functioning” of the state” and called his measures “a definitive solution to the complexity of the crisis the country is going through in the absence of any other solutions”.

As evident from Tunisia’s case, democracy and political rights do not necessarily translate into economic well-being. In fact, democratization in Tunisia had further slowed down economic growth and led to a rise in unemployment rates. The world, especially the West, prematurely celebrated Tunisia as a model and democratic outcome of the Arab Spring without scrutinizing the existing economic conditions in which democratization was occurring. People, however, expect more than just political rights from democracy. If people in undemocratic countries are expected to lead their countries into democratization, there must be evident socioeconomic changes that come as a result which could sustain democracy at home as well as incentivize democratization abroad. If Tunisia returns to authoritarianism, it might be prescribed as a failure of democracy to address the socio-economic challenges of the developing world. The Tunisian success tale might, ironically, discourage future democratization projects.

Views expressed in the article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

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