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The Challenge for Tunisia’s Next President: Delivering for the Country’s Disenchanted Youth

Two outsiders emerged as front runners in the first round of Tunisia’s presidential race on September 15th in a rebuke of the political establishment. These candidates, a little-known professor and a populist media magnate, capitalized on exasperation with elite-driven politics and deteriorating economic conditions. Voter turnout was low, especially among youth. Tunisians head back to the polls on Sunday, October 13, and among the next president’s challenges will be delivering for the country’s youngest voters.

This fall’s parliamentary and presidential elections revealed deep disenchantment among Tunisia’s youth, who are disproportionately impacted by the country’s economic woes, such as the rising cost of living and widespread joblessness. Today, about a third of all young Tunisians are unemployed and much of Tunisia’s rural interior remains underdeveloped—often without electricity or drinking water. According to IRI polling conducted in January and February of 2019, 65 percent of youth are dissatisfied with the way democracy is developing in Tunisia, and 38 percent do not believe democracy is the best possible form of government. Moreover, nearly half of youth respondents stated that they do not believe ordinary people can affect government decision-making, a view significantly more pessimistic than that of adults and seniors.

It is precisely this disenchantment that drove many young people away from the polls or toward a virtually unknown candidate, jurist Kais Saied. For some young voters, Saied’s lack of political experience and his academic background signaled the potential for justice and the rule of law in Tunisia. In the final hours of voting, Nabil Baffoun, head of Tunisia’s electoral commission or ISIE, entreated Tunisian youth, “Young people of Tunisia, you still have an hour to vote … it’s a right that we gained from the 2011 revolution that cost lives.” But in the end, the majority of Tunisians did not vote, with only 39% of eligible voters showing up to the polls.

These numbers indicate a rejection of Tunisia’s post-revolutionary political status quo. For the past five years, Tunisia has been governed by the Ennahda party, the country’s moderate Islamist party, in coalition with Nidaa Tounes or Tahya Tounes, both secular parties. For many Tunisians, this consensus-based system of politics that enabled democracy in Tunisia to stay the course has begun to ring hollow, especially in failing to deliver the Arab Spring’s promises of economic dignity and empowerment.

Complicating the chances of meaningful reform is that the next president is likely to represent a different political party than the prime minister. Tunisia’s popularly elected president controls defense and foreign policy, while the parliament-selected prime minister handles the economy and most other issues.

Preliminary results of the parliamentary elections point to a narrow victory for Ennahda, with 52 seats, and Qalb Tounes, presidential front-runner Nabil Karoui’s party, with 38 seats in a 217-seat parliament. Even if the two parties form a coalition, they will need the support of smaller parties to form a majority. Some of these smaller parties, however, said that they would not ally with either Ennahda or Qalb Tounes. Furthermore, Ennahda’s leader Rached Ghannouchi announced that his party would seek to govern alone or with “the forces of the revolution,” indicating that he will not ally with parties accused of corruption. Karoui is currently facing charges of money laundering and tax evasion.

Regardless of who wins this Sunday’s election, the priority of the next president and the next government must be to deliver on economic reform and reawaken Tunisian people’s interest in politics, particularly that of the youth. This means engaging the young generation and tackling urgent economic issues such as sustained growth and job creation, without borrowing from the future. Left unresolved, these problems will fester and strain Tunisia’s young democratic institutions.