Tunisia's Budding Democracy Faces Its Biggest Test

7 MINS READAug 26, 2019 | 09:00 GMT
The Tunisian parliament holds a session in November 2018.
(YASSINE GAIDI/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

General view of a session for the 2019 budget proposal in Tunis, Tunisia.

  • Tunisia is entering a critical two-month election cycle, with successive presidential and parliamentary elections that will determine the next government.
  • The executive branch's power over foreign and security policy will allow whoever wins September's presidential contest to shape Tunisia's future relationships in the Middle East and North Africa.
  • Tunisians' deep disillusionment with the government, fueled by the country's chronic economic crisis, has driven significant political splintering, leading to a proliferation of independent candidates.
  • The plethora of voices will make policy direction on economic and security issues harder to gauge in the years ahead. 

Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Fourth-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments over the next quarter.

In 2014, Beji Caid Essebsi became Tunisia's first-ever popularly elected president after the country famously ousted its authoritarian leader of 22 years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Caid Essebsi was also the country's first leader to respect the new, limited role of the presidency per the country's 2014 constitution. But whether that precedent continues will now be up to his successor.

Following Caid Essebsi's death in July, Tunisia's presidential elections were moved up several weeks to mid-September. The balloting will carry heavy regional significance because as the Arab Spring showed, Tunisia wields an outsized influence on its regional peers, and its results could very well dictate the long-term sustainability of its democracy.

The Big Picture

Tunisia is home to 11 million people and lacks a powerful military. But its relatively small population ranks among the most well educated in the region, and its media is among the most vocal. The country's strong ties to Europe and the West make Tunisia attractive to its neighbors looking to forge ties for their own gain, and in a region where authoritarian and monarchical political systems abound, Tunisia's stands out as one of the few in which presidential powers are constitutionally outlined and subject to checks from other branches of government. Parties can stake unique positions and engage in free debate, and the news media covers the country's political scene honestly. But nearly 10 years after a peaceful revolution in Tunisia ignited the Arab Spring, economic crises, security threats and political chaos threaten the future of its still-nascent democracy. 

The Importance of the Presidency

In 2015, the groups that wrote Tunisia's Constitution won the Nobel Peace Prize, in part, for building a unique system of democratic power-sharing. While other parts of the government hold some oversight of presidential powers, the constitution grants the office significant sway over foreign and security policy. Whoever wins the upcoming presidential vote will have a particularly strong hand in setting Tunisia's relationships with powerful Middle Eastern countries that have long sought to influence the country's political, security and economic decisions. 

While in office, Caid Essebsi had sought to deflect efforts by wealthy Arab Gulf states to shower Tunisia with economic and security investment and cooperation in exchange for its compliance with regional goals. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has reportedly tried to enlist Tunisian elites to aid its efforts to reduce Islamist political influence and limit democratic systems in the Arab world. Should the next president prove to be more receptive to such overtures, it could shift Tunisia's role within the broader region.

As commander in chief of the Tunisian armed forces, the next president will also have a significant hand in mitigating the country's ongoing security threats, which include an enduring Islamic State insurgency, numerous strands of anti-government militancy, and persistent smuggling and human trafficking networks.

The accelerated election timeline will give added heft to this presidential contest because it will allow the winner to strongly influence the makeup of the country's next government by boosting attention and popularity on political allies ahead of parliamentary polls in October.

The Rising Anti-Establishment Tide

Ninety-seven candidates have applied to run for president. Of those, 26 have been preliminarily accepted by the country's electoral commission. Some of the most prominent names include Youssef Chahed, the country's serving prime minister and president of Tahia Tounes, a splinter of the larger Nidaa Tounes party; Moncef Marzouki, who served as president from 2011-14, and Abdel Fatah Mouru of the powerful Islamist Ennahda Party.

These institutional candidates all have substantial political experience and will appeal to voters who seek either a throwback to the authoritarian Ben Ali era or a continuation of his successor's policies and stability. But that electorate appears to be diminishing as impatience grows among the populace over Tunisia's economic crisis — which has only worsened since the Arab Spring. Chahed and the ruling Nidaa Tounes party, in particular, have borne the brunt of political and popular anger over continuing lackluster economic growth, high inflation, and crippling unemployment and underemployment levels.

Voters' growing disillusionment with the political establishment has, in turn, opened the door for a wave of independent presidential candidates, including public figures without any formal political experience. And consequently, Tunisia's larger parties, like Nidaa Tounes, have splintered considerably.

Unlike its fractured competition, the Ennahda Party retained its cohesion, making it Tunisia's strongest political force. The party has years of experience in working with its secular counterparts and embraces technocrats and a laissez-faire economic approach that appeals to more liberal voters. Mouru, Ennahda's co-founder, is likely one of the stronger candidates on the ballot. But given the anti-establishment wave inundating Tunisian politics, one of the wild-card candidates who have thrown their hats into the ring could well win. Media magnate and TV personality Nabil Karoui, for example, had been one of the top contenders before his Aug. 23 arrest on charges of money laundering and tax evasion. The timing of the arrest could point to institutional efforts to minimize the influence of political outsiders, a possibility that will prove controversial among many Tunisians.

The unprecedented number of independents running in the presidential election mirrors the onslaught of new faces seeking parliamentary seats. So far, 643 independent party lists have been registered for the parliamentary elections (a significant increase from the 414 that ran in 2014), reflecting both how prolific independent politicians and parties have become in Tunisia and how organized Tunisian parties have declined. 

Economic Troubles Ahead

The broad swath of candidates means the next government in Tunisia will be less predictable and will likely incorporate more independents with less governing experience — increasing the chances of inefficiency and gridlock, especially when dealing with tricky issues like the flagging economy.

Powerful political unions have been able to win victory after victory for workers' rights in recent years — but in some ways have limited the government's ability to enact structural economic reforms. This, combined with the democratic nature of Tunisia's system, already curtails current legislators' room for action. Additional voices and opinions in a more fractured government would likely lower its likelihood of successfully addressing the economic malaise that has fueled voters' frustration. 

Whatever new government emerges from the fray in the coming weeks could very well dictate the fate of Tunisia's post-Arab Spring democracy.

Should the new government fail to turn Tunisia's financial situation around, the country's substantial bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) could be in jeopardy. The IMF has so far doled out $1.6 billion to Tunisia under an agreement signed in 2016. But that continued aid is conditional on Tunisia continuing to hit budget deficit targets and working to slash public subsidies — an exceptionally difficult feat in a country that brings public opinion and powerful unions into the fold on large economic decisions.

Testing the Fate of Tunisia's Democracy 

Besides adding to shorter-term economic risks, Tunisia's continued political fracturing could also lead to a power vacuum that eventually puts more political capital in the hands of the country's police and armed forces. Indeed, among the sea of parties vying for seats in parliament is the country's first-ever military-affiliated party. At this point, the Tunisian military remains the weakest in North Africa. But enduring security risks will also compel the next president to establish a productive and cooperative relationship with its military and police forces. 

Ultimately, the next round of elections will serve as a test of whether Tunisia's nascent democracy can toe the line, abide by what has been drafted in its constitution, and re-establish firm footing amid the country's flagging economy and fractured political scene. But it won't be easy, no matter who wins.

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