By Larbi Sadiki
On 13 October, the election of retired constitutional law professor, Kais Saied, as Tunisia’s new president triggered a wide array of reactions and energised hopes for a promising Arab democracy. During his campaign as a low-profile candidate with no established political affiliation, he asserted, ‘I am independent and will remain so until the end of my life.’ Some analysts paid close attention to the inverse relationship between, on the one hand, the presumed ‘effectiveness’ of political institutions and parties and, on the other, citizen participation. Saied’s victory implies several ironies in a country that was the cradle of the 2011 MENA uprisings and from where four civil society organisations were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.
Saied’s status as a new political rock star in both Tunisian and Arab contexts has nurtured optimism for the second wave of Arab democratisation in the new millennium. In his acceptance speech, he thanked his young supporters ‘for turning a new page’ and vowed to try to build a ‘new Tunisia.’ According to the Sigma polling institute, about 90 per cent of voters between 18-25 years-old voted for Saied, compared with 49.2 per cent of voters over the age of 60.Nearly nine years after the 2011 uprising, the revolutionary ethos appears alive and well in Tunisia. Voters issued a strong rejoinder to establishment politicians and parties, reminding observers and the political elite alike that freedom, dignity and social justice remain unfulfilled aims. The 2019 presidential race was marred by accusations of corruption, incarceration of a front-runner candidate, the return of some ancien regime figures and expectations of voter apathy.
In this article, I examine the unfolding of Tunisia’s democratic transition with special reference to the 2019 presidential – and, to a lesser extent, parliamentary – elections. I begin with an overview of the crowded presidential field, which narrowed in the second round to a contest between newcomers, Nabil Karoui and Saied. Proceeding to a critical assessment of the salient features of this election season, I then examine the predicament of Ennahda. Finally, I look ahead to the political and economic challenges facing Saied, a newcomer with no political experience, no political party to serve as the legislative counterpart to his agenda and an enthusiastic youth cohort that has re-entered formal politics with a relish.
This significance of the 2019 election goes beyond Huntington’s measure of consolidated democracy where two peaceful transfers of power occur,a measure that Ennahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, seems to have accepted in celebrating these elections as Tunisia’s democratic ‘graduation.’ More important, perhaps, is the remarkable smoothness of the early elections, brought on by the death of the former president Beji Caid Essebsi. The Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE), the national elections commission headed by Nabil Bafoon, deserves much of the credit for the quality of the elections. ISIE re-scheduled both the presidential and parliamentary polls and even delayed the presidential runoff to ensure that Karoui would be released from prison before it took place on 13 October – another first for the Arab world. Arab commentators have been effusive in their admiration of Tunisia’s presidential-parliamentary-presidential election trilogy over the past few weeks, not least for its outcome that seems to have revived the revolutionary ethos and a faith in change-inducing democracy itself.The moment of excitement may, however, be short-lived. Soon, the realities of governance will set in: a fragmented parliament that requires cobbling together some sort of coalition, possible legal challenges from Karoui’s team and the daunting economic challenges that spurred this ‘protest vote’ in the first place. Yet, Tunisians have impressed once again.
The race begins in a crowded field
A brief comparative look is in order. Voter turnout was higher than expected at 55 per cent, but lower than the 60.1 per cent turnout of the second round of the 2014 presidential elections. Saied’s vote share of 72.71 per cent, compared to Karoui’s 27.3 per cent, is as close to a ‘landslide’ result as possible. His majority surpassed Essebsi’s 55.68 per cent vote share five years earlier, when Moncef Marzouki’s garnered 44.32 per cent of the votes in 2014.
In a fragmented field of twenty-six, but later trimmed to twenty-four, candidates, the 2019 presidential race attracted the influence of money and the attendant drama. Football mogul Slim Riahi, owner of Club Africain, was dogged by questions over the source of his wealth and he dropped out of the race on the eve of the first round. From the outset, the wealthy Karoui proved serious competition for both Youssef Chahed, the incumbent prime minister since 2016, and even Ennahda, thanks to his charity work with the marginalised in the country’s interior regions. Karoui, whose candidacy would have been denied under the modified election law that Esebssi failed to sign before his death, was in custody on charges of tax evasion and money laundering from 23 August until two days before the runoff on 13 October.
In a democratising political system where judicial independence is yet to be entrenched, Chahed sounded disingenuous in his insistence that Karoui’s arrest, which was duly condemned by fellow candidates, was not politically motivated. During the parliamentary campaign and into the second round of the presidential race, all candidates except Chahed called for Karoui’s release, seeking a more even-handed race. Repeating the claim that he was ‘not in a race against anybody,’ Saied put his money where his mouth was and, in solidarity with Karoui, suspended campaigning during the last week.
Abir Moussi performed poorly in the first round of the presidential race, securing less than 5 per cent of the vote. Yet, as leader of the Free Dustour party, she made a dent on the election scene. Moussi considers ‘revolution’ a misnomer for the transformation set in motion in 2011 and unabashedly hearkens back to the days of ousted dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Moussi’s well-worn habit of attacking Islamists – referring to Ennahda only as ‘al-Ikhwan’ – as a putative threat to democracy and the Tunisian way of life was not her only campaign issue. She adopted the language of development and responsiveness to citizens’ needs as indicative of the failures by ruling parties, elites and the larger post-2011 ‘rotten’ politics. Her affiliations to Ben Ali and anti-revolution stances may have deterred most Tunisians, but not all; her party won seventeen parliamentary seats. Moussi is sure to be a dogged naysayer, a persistent challenger to whatever coalition is hammered out.
Another political newcomer to the presidential race was Saifeddine Makhlouf, spokesperson for Etilak al-Karamah (Dignity Coalition), representing former post-2011 parties, such as Justice and Development and al-Mu’tamar (Congress), and independents, including bloggers and academics. Despite his seeming overconfidence, Makhlouf failed to advance to the runoff. An attorney, he was something of a lightning-rod figure, deemed ultra-conservative by even Tunisian Islamists. He ran on a platform of representing the ‘thawrah damir’ (revolution consciousness) of the country to reclaim Tunisian dignity from the creeping security tentacles of the state and reclaim Tunisian sovereignty from interference by outsiders. Perhaps too argumentative for a presidential personality in an increasingly fragmented country, Makhlouf demanded an official apology from France for colonialism and continuing postcolonial exploitation in natural resource contracts and visa requirements into France or the EU. Despite his failed presidential bid, he remains an important figure on the political scene, as Etilaf al-Karamah nabbed twenty-one seats in the parliamentary election.
As the post-2011 Minster of Defence and former Minister of Health under Ben Ali, Abdelkarim Zbidi might have been closest to the West’s preferred candidate for leadership in Tunisia. He would have stood between the Islamists and key ministries, overseeing the intelligence and security portfolios in consultation with Western military and political elites. Yet Zbidi did not go far, emerging fourth with less than 10 per cent of the vote.
Chahed, running on a ‘pragmatic’ anti-corruption platform and paying lip service to the untapped potential of the country’s largely-unemployed and restive youth, insisted that he would renegotiate Tunisia’s agreements with the EU. He also promised to give up his French citizenship, per the constitutional requirement for presidential contenders, surprising many Tunisians who were unaware of his dual citizenship. Nevertheless, over the past three years, he has administered Tunisia’s US$2.9 billion loan from the IMF, with austerity strings attached. His unpopular policies sparked recurring protests in the capital as well as the country’s west and south. Construction workers and doctors were the latest groups to threaten strike action. Chahed’s record did not inspire confidence among voters that he would reverse Tunisia’s descent into economic dependency or limit profiteering by foreign corporations at the expense of local economic gains. His constant spouting of numbers – hundreds of thousands of families receiving aid from the state and a GDP growth rate inching towards 3 per cent – did not mask the unemployment rate of over 15 per cent (more than double the rate in some governorates and among youth), skyrocketing prices and public debt soaring to over 70 per cent.
While Chahed failed miserably in his presidential bid, his Tahya Tounes party surprised many by winning a substantial fifteen parliamentary seats. Whether or not Chahed joins the Ennahda-led coalition remains to be seen, but his ambition does not appear to have been dampened. Chahed even had the gall to comment on Saied’s win as proof that Tunisians are sick of ‘corruption,’ his own campaign issue that landed Karoui in jail. Chahed does not seem to recognise that he was the head of the very government that Tunisians voted against.
Candidates under the spotlight
The Tunisian media’s role in voter education and providing dispassionate and ‘neutral’ information left much to be desired. The media has undoubtedly benefitted from privatisation and decreased concentration of ownership and proliferation,but the notion of ‘authoritarian resilience’is not far-fetched when considering the congruence, or lack thereof, between media development and democratic transition. Major television networks – including Nessma TV, belonging to billionaire and presidential contender Karoui; Hannibal TV, formerly owned by businessman Larbi Nasra, an independent presidential candidate; and especially Zaytouna TV – tended to side with the Islamist Ennahda Party. The polarising role of media continued in the 2019 elections, in both presidential and parliamentary elections, with candidates planning their appearances accordingly. Nessma TV’s media ‘voice’ was unsurprisingly partisan. It maintained clear solidarity with its owner, Karoui, after his arrest, including frequent appearances by his wife, Salwa Smaoui.
However, in line with directives by the High National Independent Authority on Audio-Visual Communication, television and radio stations alike offered equal media time to presidential candidates through the 2019 election season. This included not just television stations such as Al-Tasi’ah and Al-Tunissia, but also radio stations such as MozaiqueFM, ShamsFM and others, which took turns hosting the different candidates and extended invitations to Karoui’s campaign when the Nessma owner was in jail. The country’s youth, however, swiftly mobilised to decry instances of one-sided television coverage. For example, when Al-Hiwar al Tounsi aired fierce attacks on Saied, it prompted a social media campaign where one million people un-subscribed from the channel’s Facebook page.
The media highlight has been the presidential debates,when millions of Tunisians tuned in. During the first round, the debates were broadcast three nights in a row (7-9 September) to provide an opportunity to all twenty-six candidates.Questions to candidates addressed security, national defence, foreign policy, as well as a range of other ‘public issues,’ from gender equality to economic woes facing citizens. The series of televised debates, a first for the Arab world, provided a welcome opportunity for voters and other Arab observers to view up-close the respective personas of the presidential hopefuls. This ‘test’ of candidates’ improvisational skills, including the ability to construct pithy responses in ninety seconds, was a chance for them to declare their stances on various political issues, including some controversial topics, such as relations with Syria or the EU and inheritance laws.
Other issues and positions, such as ‘economic diplomacy’ and the imperatives of regional development, revealed more commonalities than differences between the candidates. The hosting duos for each debate – a man and a woman from the public and private media sectors – competently ensured that candidates followed the rules, stuck to the allotted time and engaged – more or less – in respectful, if not particularly incisive, dialogue. In the second debate, a case of ‘cheating’ by two candidates who brought in forbidden supplementary materials – a notebook and a phone – did not upset the equanimity and seriousness of this novel deliberative platform.
The final debate between the recently-released Karoui and Saied may or may not have been a decisive factor, assuring the latter’s landslide victory less than two days later. In the final showdown between the last two presidential hopefuls, the moderators’ questions could have been more hard-hitting, instead of recycling questions from the first round of debates. For instance, they could have asked pointedly how each of the candidates could bring Tunisians together in a highly polarised political climate with no clear winner after the parliamentary elections. It would have been the opportunity to press candidates on the gap between their ambitious pledges – Saied’s ‘empowering the people’ and Karoui’s ‘caring for the poor’ – and the narrow constitutional powers of the president. Still, the debates were a positive step toward the constructive public deliberation that complements formal institutional processes in a democracy. Democratic learning is ongoing; the performance of both moderators and candidates will likely improve with time.
The debate did, however, bring to the fore differences between the two personalities and some of their policy inclinations. It left a perhaps indelible impression of an eloquent, commanding and honest Saied sparring with a soft-spoken and relatively inarticulate Karoui. Failing to convince in his denial of hiring a public relations firm run by an ex-Israeli intelligence officer, Karoui waffled on the question of normalising relations with Israel.
The 2019 elections sustained the continual change of the political party landscape that began five years earlier. In the 2014 elections, the bulk of the political parties or alliances that contested the 2011 National Constituent Assembly election dissolved. Unsurprisingly, in 2019, the voting public took the two largest parties, Ennahda and Nidaa, to task for their ‘consensus’ coalition. Throughout the 2019 campaigns, the two parties played the blame game for the failures of the tawaafuq (consensus government) in dealing with chronic unemployment and underdevelopment.
Only Ennahda withstood the meltdowns of the post-2011 parties. Still, it not only failed to advance its candidate to the second round of the presidential poll, but its clout has also been largely diminished in the parliamentary elections. Nidaa Tounes has been buried with its founder Essebsi and its members have dispersed into a number of spin-off parties including Chahed’s Tahya Tounes. The remnants of the Tunisian left, including Hammami’s Popular Front, have been all but scattered to the wind. This may be a post-ideological moment, albeit dizzying in its fragmented uncertainty.
Political gentrification rebuffed
Moneyed elites are not unique to the Arab Middle East; they influence politics globally.Like Riahi in the 2014 elections, Karoui had a finger in every pie in 2019. The presidential election was only one front, as his new Qalb Tounes party came second in the parliamentary elections, winning thirty-nine seats. The nexus of politics and wealth in party formation is a phenomenon deserving of systematic study. This ‘gentrification’ of politics in Tunisia has come under close scrutiny and critics argue it could undermine the country’s transition.Public disaffection with political parties in general may explain the rise of independent candidates, whose share of the vote in the municipal elections of 2018 rose markedly.The 2019 elections cemented this trend and yet, the tycoons who have run for the presidency since 2011 have not succeeded so far. Perhaps buying votes does not work.
Karoui embraced the cheeky moniker ‘Makrona’ (pasta) during his post-defeat press conference. Defiant, he noted that his opponents’ use of the label to poke fun at him and his party left him unfazed: Qalb Tounes cared about the poor and Tunisia would be a much better place if everyone received a plate of macaroni, he insisted.But voters in the second round disagreed, pointedly turned away from big money and the stench of corruption – whether for the campaign or vote buying. Instead, Tunisians opted for a candidate who spent no money campaigning, rewarding Saied with nearly three times as many votes as Karoui, who owned a television channel and spent three years working with the poor as a springboard for his presidential bid. What does that say about oligarchy and democracy?Perhaps newly-democratised developing countries are not necessarily doomed to choose the Berlusconis or Trumps of this world.
Ennahda in crisis?
The Islamist Ennahda party can rightfully claim an instrumental role in Tunisia’s post-revolutionary transition. It relinquished power once the constitution was adopted by the National Constituent Assembly in January 2014 and again in October 2014. The moderate Islamist party displayed a rare willingness to concede defeat, which bodes well for the future of democratic transition in Tunisia.It is through the repetition of these exercises of consolidation, self-enforcing rules of competition and compliance that democracy is gradually constructed. Thereafter, five years of Ennahda’s tawafuq (consensus) agreement with former rival Nidaa, hailed by so many including Western onlookers, may have ensured some modicum of stability within government. But to what end? As it governed alongside Essebsi’s party under Chahed, Ennahda failed to rise to severe policy challenges, particularly the dire economic situation. Its convergence with – or capitulation to – Nidaa on such issues as the so-called Reconciliation Law,austerity measures and tax hikes incited public dissatisfaction, protests and campaigns, such as ‘Manish Msameh’ (I am not forgiving).
For the country’s most organised political party, known for its fixed support base usually estimated at about 35 per cent of the voting public, Abdelfattah Mourou’s failure to advance in the elections should come as a piercing wake-up call. The outcome forces difficult questions about voting discipline within Ennahda. The myth of a united and coherent movement-party has been shattered. Endorsing Kais Saied in the second round, Ennahda soon jumped back on the ‘revolutionary’ bandwagon as it campaigned for parliamentary seats. The party’s fifty-two seats in parliament, down from sixty-nine in 2014, only confirmed Tunisians’ sinking faith in Ennahda. While it has the biggest share of seats, Ennahda is nowhere close to forming a government.
The party’s leadership should take this electoral beating as an opportunity for deep soul-searching. After Mourou’s loss, Ennahda’s founding duo should have seized the moment to hold themselves accountable to the party’s members, its base and all of Tunisia. They did not. Instead, Ghannouchi sought to make up for years of empty ‘consensus politics’ by invoking regional inequality, economic development and the unemployment crisis in two weeks of parliamentary campaigning. But the Tunisian public appears to have recognised the difference between delayed rhetoric and actual policy-making, punishing Ennahda and the rest of the political establishment at the polls. Ennahda, like Nidaa and the other post-revolutionary parties that preceded it, was saved from being completely buried by its relatively stable support base over the last eight years. This support base is now a much-diminished political force. This phenomenon is both fragmentary and, concomitantly, a pluralising dynamic. Nonetheless, for the Islamists, much reflection is in order.
What has Ennahda offered to Tunisians since helping to hammer out the constitution of the second republic, their crowning achievement, five years ago? When Ennahda joined hands with Essebsi and came up with its ‘consensus’ innovation, did the party downsize itself? Is Ennahda’s entire project a failure, sunk by the Tunisian electorate? Or, alternatively, were the tactical and strategic mistakes in a poorly administered ‘consensus’ due to two men and not their parties?Many predicted that this election season would allow Ghannouchi to make a graceful exit from politics, especially after Mourou failed to advance to the second round of the presidential. Handing over the party’s leadership to the younger generation is long overdue.
Yet the Shaykh appears to have ignored dissenting voices within Ennahda and, more broadly, the larger Tunisian population. The possibility of Ghannouchi as Prime Minister – if one goes by the rumour mill – seems to be a dubious political arrangement when Ennahda is in the throes of an existential crisis. For five years it was neither a majority nor opposition party and since 2016, it has distanced itself from political Islam. Eight years after the revolution, who and what is Ennahda? The next five years will be full of trial and error. With no formal political experience, Ghannouchi’s rumoured venture into the premiership will be deleterious not only to the country, but also to his own political legacy-in-the-making.
The puzzle of Kais Saied
The result of 2019 presidential election has raised the youth’s hopes of reclaiming a margin of existence and a space for rekindling the memes of the 2011 revolution, namely, ‘the people want.’ All eyes are now focused on how the youth’s chosen saviour, ‘KS,’ will translate this slogan into freedom, dignity and, above all else, jobs. The country’s youth have made an about-turn from their political apathy documented in the years since the revolution.Young people have proven that they not only protest and work in civil society, but they also vote. Exit polls estimate that 90 per cent of eligible 18-35 year-olds and 83.3 per cent of 26-44 year-olds cast their vote for Saied.For many youth, the choice was between decency, integrity, honesty (Saied) and corruption (Karoui). Saied inspired youth voluntarism, as well as formal political participation, getting the revolution back on track, by some accounts.
However, question remains as to how Saied’s victory is going to mark a ‘turning point’ when economic management does not constitutionally come under the purview of the president’s duties. Despite this election’s hype and the victory of a ‘clean’ and non-establishment figure, how will a president constitutionally restricted to matters of foreign affairs and security address his voters’ domestic and economic concerns? Saied’s task is further complicated by the future influence of the amorphous non-partisan youth movement (hirak) that aided his success in the runoff vote. The youth hirak rebelled not only against Ennahda, whose ‘defectors’ supported Saied, but also against the entire political establishment that has run the country since the National Constituent Assembly elections in October 2011. There is an element of a general protest movement against parties and leaders, who the voting public deem to have strayed from the principles of the uprisings. This public backlash not only explains the dramatic results during the 2019 elections, but the disintegration of entire establishment organisations – including from within the left, the biggest loser in these elections – in favour of unknown parties and candidates who could claim affinity with Tunisia’s ‘indignants.’
How has an unconventional populist,who makes up for his lack of political identity or anti-authoritarian struggle with fervent grassroots backing,won the presidential race? Saied defied conventional wisdom and focused on lingering problems that were ignored over the last eight years by inexperienced and power-hungry political forces and leaders. Saied’s candidacy was an outlet for people to vent their political disillusionment. His 72 per cent share of the vote is not an accurate political barometer. Instead, the first round results where Saied was allotted 18.4 per cent of the vote and Karoui 15.58 per cent, with Ennahda’s Mourou coming in third, offer a more accurate snapshot, as confirmed by the parliamentary elections where no party even approached a majority. Tunisia’s political mosaic is far from monism. Thus, Saied’s overwhelming majority should not be flagged as a test of his popularity. At judgement day, Tunisians handed down a sentence to the post-Ben Ali establishment, including Islamists. He was democratically elected as the polity finds itself at a kind of nadir. How someone without a party and without a political base finds himself in high office is a political puzzle that will be unfurling over the next five years.
Most striking about Saied is his ‘contre-pouvoir’, his anti-system sensibility. Saied was at his most fiery in the presidential debates discussing his attitude toward Israel, railing against the ‘high treason’ of dealing with the Zionist state – not Jews as such – that had ‘displaced [the] entire [Palestinian] people…many of whom remain in tents today.’In this exchange he was also at his most populist, sounding more ideological than presidential in proclaiming that war was the ‘normal’ state of affairs with Israel. It is one thing for celebrating crowds to shout ‘the people want a free Palestine!’, but the formal discourse of a presidential candidate should sound more sophisticated. Saied could have offered a more credible position through a juridical take on the ‘deal of century’ by stressing, for instance, a prioritisation of Palestinian interests in line with international law and UN Security Council Resolutions. While he purports to be the upholder and respecter-in-chief of sovereignty, his political lexicon remains wanting, a deficiency that some political experience and reflexivity may remedy.
Populist discourse invoking ‘general will’ is, however, anachronistic at best. Whose popular will? Over two hundred years of democratic theory and practice across the world has problematised a single, spontaneous iradah ‘ammah. Why attempt to overhaul the country’s constitution that Tunisians deliberated on for four years, in pursuit of a new political system approximating direct democracy (‘from the local to the regional to the centre’), complete with recall mechanisms? The constitution itself sanctions and potentially empowers local and regional governance; the problem has not been simply a lack of implementation and political will, but also a dearth of public funds. Informal actors – activists, politically unaffiliated youth, unions, etc. – must be included in policy planning, especially in the realm of development.
Saied correctly argues that political – not just economic – marginalisation of youth is a glaring deficiency in a country whose political establishment has veered off the revolutionary track. Yet his promise to ‘empower the people,’ especially the youth, to ‘rise to the level of decision-making’ to implement their own will smacks of digression from real issues. He has offered very few concrete solutions to reviving the ailing economy. Talk of a greater ‘social role’ for the state, echoing the spirit of the 1960s. may sound appealing, but that was nearly six decades ago, before Habib Bourguiba’s turn to liberalisation, before the IMF was breathing down Tunisia’s neck demanding greater austerity and fiscal discipline, before unemployment reached over 30 per cent in some regions and before the return of harqa (illegal boat migration) as a dystopian dream for hopeless youth. While Tunisian elites struggle to solve unrelenting problems, the solution already exists in the country’s political repertoire, identified by Bourguiba himself: al-tanmiyah al-jihawiayyah (regional development). There is no need to reinvent the wheel, merely to offer leadership on creative yet feasible solutions.
The political challenges and economic woes facing Saied are daunting,but fragmentation need not be a death-sentence; it can be productive. Sustainable democratisation feeds on pluralism and it is far preferable to party hegemony. Diversified governance means more partners, more ideas and dispersed responsibility and power. If Ennahda loses more seats in the next parliamentary election, that may bode well for Tunisia’s sustainable democratisation. Tunisia’s consistent electoral contests have been turned into tests of democratic consolidation and learning processes. Through these processes, the Maghrebi country is progressively building civic capital and its young people are engaged in democratic learning. As a resource-poor country, Tunisia can capitalise on its fledgling democracyto become an Arab leader in developing holistic policies that promote sustainable democracy in line with both global and regional standards.Its incipient entry into the international ‘democratic club’ is a golden opportunity to cultivate diplomatic, economic and even cultural relations with other democratic countries. Such confidence and capacity building will allow Tunisia to shine in international organisations, including but not limited to its temporary seat on the UN Security Council in 2020, to become a highly respected global citizen amongst the community of nations.
Thorny foreign policy issues face the incoming president. How will Saied’s populism face real-world problems, such as the country’s bases being used for US military operations with little to no information-sharing with the Tunisian government, let alone oversight?Will Tunisia, a defender of international sovereignty, continue counter-terrorism cooperation with the US while these operations are kept secret for its undoubted unpopularity among the public?Importantly, it remains to be seen whether Tunisia’s democratisation will translate into inclusive economic growth and regional development. For sustainable democratisation to be converted into a resource, the newly elected leaders must prioritise policies and programmes geared towards the welfare of all citizens.
After making good on his promise to visit Algeria, Saied should also travel to neighbouring Morocco. Islamists, including Ennahda, have often flocked to Paris and Washington on official visits. For inspiration, Saied can break this mould and make trips to fellow small states, including Singapore, which has an impressive record in developing a knowledge economy,and Costa Rica,which has enjoyed more than six decades of democracy, despite its relative poverty.Like Tunisia, these countries are resource-poor but rich in human capital and have become success stories in refashioning their politics to provide for their people.
Improving the welfare of citizens may be the solution for increasing economic productivity, which is badly needed for enhancing well-being, eradicating marginalisation, alleviating poverty and creating jobs.If the new leadership fail to capitalise on this opportunity, it would render sustainable democratisation a form of ‘resource curse’ for Tunisia: a country endowed with expanding civic capital and democratic learning, but unable to make effective use of its democratic resources.
Over the last eight years, elected governments and parliaments in Tunisia have laboured under the duress of corruption, low rates of economic growth, a devalued Dinar, polarisation, high unemployment and public debt soaring to over 70 per cent, including a dependence on international lenders.Democracy may not reverse corruption fully, but it furnishes the legal means of combatting it. It may not be a panacea for all ills, but it builds the civic and democratic capital needed for unleashing initiatives consistent with improved social and distributive justice, regional development and a wider scope for economic growth.
Conclusion: Democratic learning in challenging times
In 2019, as in 2014, the main democratic breakthrough has been the consolidation of free elections as the foundation for a constitutional, orderly, non-violent, periodic and rule-based alternation of power. The practice, regardless of who emerged victorious in the landmark election, is key to democratic learning.Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes set the scene for a process of electoral ‘habituation’ for minor political parties’ alliances and their followers. The skills required to generate information, partisan propaganda, campaigning, media management and connecting with the public are all newly-acquired and were on full display during the 2014 and 2019 elections. That Tunisian political parties and elites, both new and old, play by the rules of the democratic game is a strong indication of a level of ‘civic’ maturity allowing for electoral rules to be enforceable. Across a wide body of democratic theory, compliance with electoral rules and results is integral to the understanding of democracy and democratisation.In 2019, voting has become routinised political practice, even if only among 55 per cent of eligible voters. The revolution has struck back, but through the ballot box.
* Larbi Sadiki teaches international affairs at Qatar University. He is author of Rethinking Arab Democratizationand editor of the Routledge Handbook of the Arab Spring.His forthcoming book is The Routledge Handbook of Middle East Politics: Interdisciplinary Inscriptions.
* This article was first published by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies
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