Four Years After the Arab Spring, Tunisia May Manage an Improved Democracy

But Voters Doubt the Political Class, So a Technocratic Government Offers the Best Hope

Four years after Tunisia overthrew its dictator and ignited the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, its 11 million people are nearing the end of their country’s formal political transition. Tunisian voters will elect a parliament on October 26 and a president on November 23, each for a five-year term.

As it approaches this finish line of sorts, Tunisia seems to be the only one of five Arab nations in transition (Syria being the fifth) that is on a clear path to the establishment of a democratic, more stable future. Still, according to Haykel Ben Mahfoudh, the election preparations include clear warning signs of public mistrust with the election process, the established political parties and the political class as a whole. This means the country’s best hopes may lie in creating a relatively technocratic government that focuses matter-of-factly on delivering better services to the citizenry, Ben Mahfoudh writes on the Atlantic Council’s MENASource blog.

“The real question is how” Tunisia will be governed, “rather than who will” do it, writes Ben Mahfoudh, a professor of law and political science at the University of Carthage. He is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center on the Middle East. “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,” he writes.

Here are Ben Mahfoudh’s warning signs: Voter registration is “modest,” a “symptom of deteriorating trust in the political class.” Opinion polls show poor public confidence in Tunisia’s established political parties, which are led by the Islamist movement, Ennahdha (“Renaissance”), and the secularist NIdaa Tounes (“Call of Tunisia”). And the parties’ political platforms have not been “clear and meaningful.”

Achieving the parliamentary majority for a government after the elections probably will require parties to form a coalition—and the mathematics of such coalition building may be complicated by the presence of a significant number of independent candidates.  The political horse-trading required to achieve a coalition may compromise the ability of the next government “to deliver security, economic growth, social justice,” and other basics of governance, the absence of which brought Tunisia to its 2011 revolution.

“In this context, a technocratic solution becomes an alternative to consider seriously,” Ben Mahfoudh writes. “Although few parties have explicitly endorsed the technocratic option, the dominant Ennahda party does not exclude it. It has supported [the] idea of a consensual candidate” for the presidency, “despite objections from its main rival, Nidaa Tounes.” That stance by Ennahdha could be “a ploy to reengage with part of its lost electorate,” but it also could “indicate a sophisticated pragmatism.”

Tunisia’s best hope is that it is the latter—and that other Tunisian parties can be led to sign on to the idea.

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Image: Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda movement wave national and party flags during a campaign event in Tunis October 12, 2014. Tunisia will hold parliamentary elections on October 26 and a presidential ballot in November. (Photo: REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi)