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October 15, 2014
Pursuant to the transitional provisions of Tunisia’s constitution, the Independent Higher Authority for Elections (ISIE) organized both the legislative and presidential elections to take place on October 26 and November 23, respectively. These elections will mark the end of a tumultuous transitional period since the fall of Ben Ali’s regime in January 2011. By electing new democratic institutions, Tunisia will enter into a new phase of democratic consolidation. Despite the optimism toward the sole survivor of the Arab Spring closing its final transitional chapter, the country’s future remains far from certain as political players begin to realign new realities. Despite procedural, operational, and external challenges, how political players in Tunisia choose to govern and cater to the needs of ordinary Tunisians will ultimately set a long lasting precedent for the post-transitional period.

Neither the constitution nor the electoral law set a clear schedule for presidential and legislative elections, putting an already fragile system to the test. Initially, no party—neither the Islamist Ennahda nor the secular Nidaa Tounes powerhouses, nor even independent democracy advocates—could agree on the sequence. However, through the national dialogue, the major political actors reached consensus in favor of the parliamentary elections first. This spirit set an important tone for the challenges to come. Unlike the preceding election in 2011—one meant to provide a new constitution for the country—the upcoming vote will choose Tunisian leaders who bear the responsibility of redefining the political culture for the foreseeable future.

The coming elections herald relief for a country suffering from three years of turmoil. The new parliament and the first freely elected president will each serve a five-year term. Whether the elections results will express a desire for change remains to be seen. Institutional factors, the election sequence, the voting system, and the overwhelming numbers of candidates for the 217 parliamentary seats will all play a part in the resulting dynamic. Yet, questions of legitimacy also remain. Opinion polls illustrate how political parties suffer from a poor public image in the wake of the transitional Ennahda-led Troika government. Political bickering interfered with vital issues regarding security, the economy, and social justice until Mehdi Jomaa’s technocratic government formed. Less than 2 percent of Tunisians today believe that elections constitute the top priority. Seemingly, a gap has grown between the stated priorities of domestic political actors and the public. Indeed, these elections occur in a climate of tensions and distrust among the governed.

Tunisia’s security situation also exacerbates the potential legitimacy concern. Domestic security improved in 2014, but remains weak in comparison to 2011. Weaknesses in the state security system and the persisting regional instability—mainly in Libya and Syria—increase the political risk in Tunisia. In 2011, the ministry of defense called up more than 20,000 reservists to secure the elections. The number of forces this year must increase (50,000 are already on call) and operational procedures reorganized to ensure free and transparent elections. However, security only comprises one part of the overarching challenge. Securing the elections will facilitate political participation, but creating the drive for wider participation is primarily political.

There is growing concern over the continued governance deficit in Tunisia. As ordinary citizens long for the pre-revolution era’s stability, members of the previous regime see an opportunity to regain their lost legitimacy. The so-called “remnants” represent a diverse yet potent political force, turning the failures of consecutive transitional governments to their benefit by presenting a simple argument: we have the experience; we are still committed; we are better than the revolutionary political class. Such arguments have not yet received broad public support, but after three years of instability, recession, and infighting, public obsession with security and the economy may affect Tunisians’ decision vis-à-vis a democratic system.

Tunisia’s struggle today is less about ideology or changing the social model. The real question is how, rather than who will govern the country. Over the next five to ten years, efficiently meeting social needs will take priority and have the most impact on the new government’s legitimacy. As such, a new political dynamic will need to be created. In accordance with the constitution, the party with the largest number of votes will form the government. With no clear majorities, Tunisia’s political class must create multi-party coalitions—a most likely scenario. Such a dynamic will no doubt impact the ability to deliver security, economic growth, social justice, etc. If the same leaders who engaged in partisan bickering become reelected, then the governance deficit will remain. Real change will compel a balance between pursuing national priorities and identifying opportunities amid shifting public needs, requiring project coordination and alignment with reform priorities. Partisan voters, however, always vote for their preferred candidates, not necessarily those best prepared to govern.

In this context, a technocratic solution becomes an alternative to consider seriously. In the wake of modest voter registration–a symptom of the deteriorating trust in the political class—and the absence of clear and meaningful electoral platforms, such an alternative makes sense. The significant number of independent candidates for both legislative and presidential elections suggests that these politically neutral candidates—if they are really so—are trying to cater to the constituency demanding change. However, their number and votes can affect the process of building sustainable coalitions. Jomaa’s technocratic government ostensibly improved security, initiated economic reforms, and increased tourism—an objective improvement over the Troika.

Although few parties have explicitly endorsed the technocratic option, the dominant Ennahda party does not exclude it. It has supported idea of a consensual candidate for the presidential forward despite objections from its main rival, Nidaa Tounes. In his address to Ennahda’s Shoura Council, party leader Rached Ghannouchi has unambiguously supported a consensus policy for the selection of a president or “governments” (the plural was his). Although this party line could merely be a ploy to reengage with part of its lost electorate, it could also indicate a sophisticated pragmatism. If the next elections duplicate previous patterns, a powerless government and divided parliament, then its influence in the legislature will be meaningless, the “start-up democracy” a lost cause.

While security and economic concerns may be the issues of the day, good governance, transparency, and freedom will remain inherent to any democratization process. Electoral priorities must reflect a genuine willingness to work for the sake of the citizenry in a kind of shareholders’ package deal. It is within a triangle between the political parties, socioeconomic actors, and international actors that a start-up democracy can find its real potential.

Haykel Ben Mahfoudh is a professor of law and political science at the University of Carthage in Tunisia and a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center on the Middle East.

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