Photo: Touraj Eghtesad
By Touraj Eghtesad Almost four years after the Tunisian Revolution, electoral democracy is becoming a reality in this little country where citizens often feel distant from the process of democratic transition. Meanwhile, much of the European media praises the ‘advent of democracy’ in Tunisia, where a democratic tradition has little consistency so far, as if democracy was a ‘thing’ rather than an ongoing process of checks and balances.
After a first set of elections with hundreds of political parties, Ennahdha (conservative) won and led a coalition government (Troika). Many people trusted that an Islamist party could not become corrupt and that Ennahdha would pursue a whole different trajectory than the Ben Ali regime which long oppressed them. Over the past three years, however, many Tunisians were frustrated that the Troika government did little to stop the growth of Islamist terrorist groups and carried out the same economic policies of the Ben Ali era.
The murder of far-left parliamentary Mohammed Brahmi by Salafist extremists in July 2013 brought one million Tunisians onto the streets . The Troika government, under pressure, promised to step down in favour of a technocratic government after a process of ‘National Dialogue’. This culminated in the vote of a new Constitution, praised as the most progressive in the Arab world, in January 2014.
Conducting my Master’s field research about unemployed graduates’ activism, I managed to witness the constitutional vote in the National Assembly, where politicians of all colours were ecstatic after three years of deliberation and conflict. The next day, a group of young Tunisians of various political belongings argued whether the Constitution was an advancement or not. Nonetheless, they agreed that three years had been wasted in drafting a new Constitution, a reflection of the secular/Islamist debate over Tunisia’s national identity, while none of them actually cared about those issues.
The recent October 26th elections had a smaller turnout than the previous one (about 40% vs. 50% in 2011). This outlines the lack of engagement of Tunisians, especially young voters, with political elites and the new ‘democratic’ regime. ‘I didn’t vote in 2011 because there were many people from the Ben Ali regime on the electoral lists. I only voted this time to balance power between parties. Since every party has a similar programme and all of them are only after power, it is important to avoid that anyone gets a majority’ (Kais, 25 years old).
Many young Tunisians are disillusioned and are unaccustomed to the electoral process. In the past few months, hundreds of NGOs working on ‘democratic transition’ and ‘citizenship’ have mobilized people to vote and teach citizens how to make a conscious electoral decision. This resulted in a clean and fair election, with Nidaa Tounes (liberal) winning almost 40% of the vote. There are two key reasons for Nidaa’s victory. First, this was a sanction vote against the Troika government’s poor performance since October 2011. Many people felt that it failed to accomplish its mandate, as rising insecurity and economic crisis ravaged the country. The CPR party of President Marzouki and Ettakatol both collapsed (from 24 to 5 seats), while Ennhadha lost about 10% of the popular vote. Secondly, Tunisians voted in favour of stability and competence. Tunisians hope that the uncertainty of the Revolution fades away, paving the way for a vibrant national economy. The mismanagement of the Ennhada party and partisan quarrelling in the transition period made people sceptical of the potential for new parties to govern the nation. On October 26th, they chose to elect a party with many members of the old regime in its ranks as a more experienced party that can guarantee a return ‘back to normal’ for the middle classes.
‘I don’t want to go backwards or live in an Islamic state so I voted for Nidaa. They will bring stability back; for us that is especially important to revive the tourist industry’ (Asma, 28 years old). Electoral democracy has become the game for Tunisia’s main political actors, and a two-party system is likely to unfold. For some theorists of democratic transition, two governmental changes through elections means that democracy is consolidated. Many former members of the Ben Ali regime joined Nidaa Tounes at its creation in 2012 by notorious Bourguibist leader Beji Caid Essebsi. Ennahdha, afraid of falling out of parliament altogether like the Islamists in Egypt, have also adopted the rules of procedural democracy. They left power before the elections and are not presenting a candidate for the presidency, instead preferring a consensus candidate.
Now that the elections are over, Nidaa Tounes has yet to name a new government. In the absence of a majority, they must lead a coalition government with the UPL (led by a billionaire and has no clear policy) and the FP (far-left), which seems unlikely, or enter join forces in a government of national unity with Ennahdha who is widely in favour of this. Their priority will be to lead the country out of the economic crisis as Tunisians of all backgrounds have high expectations for change.