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Democracy Is Not at Risk in Tunisia

All eyes are on Tunisia as it prepares for a presidential election on September 15 — an election hastened by the untimely death of President Beji Kaid Essebsi, the founding father of Tunisia’s second republic.

Despite disenchantment with Tunisia’s direction since the Arab Spring, the high number of Tunisians registered to vote in the upcoming elections gives hope for the country’s democratic path.

More than seven million people have registered to vote in a country of 11.5 million, an increase of nearly 2.5 million in potential voters since the last municipal elections in May 2018. 

Deep structural issues continue to plague Tunisia — a slew of economic problems that encompass high unemployment, rising inflation, large public debt and stalled growth; a festering Islamist insurgency; political infighting; and the development gap between the coast, which includes the capital and is associated with the country’s elite, and the more impoverished interior.

There are 221 political parties, with some of the larger parties, such as Nidaa Tounes, splintering and forming spinoffs, including Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s Tahya Tounes. Overall, electoral campaigns continue to be marked by an absence of defined policies and coherent party platforms.

The country’s persistent economic crisis has fueled rising disillusionment and disaffection. Citizens are disenchanted with decision-makers for not delivering on the promises of the Arab Spring. IRI’s polls have consistently pointed to the crisis of confidence in political leaders: politicians are viewed as elite, out of touch and lacking a vision for the country. Indeed, the percentage of those who believed that the country was going in the wrong direction stood at 87 percent earlier this year. Seventy percent of respondents in the same poll distrusted political parties “somewhat” or a “great deal.”

And yet, the presidential frontrunners include many establishment politicians — most notably, incumbent Prime Minister Youseff Chahed, former President Moncef Marzouki, former Prime Ministers Mehdi Jomaa and Hamadi Jebali, and Abdelfattah Mourou, the vice president of Ennahda, the country’s main Islamist party. Of course, outsider populist candidates have sought to take advantage of the political uncertainty, including media mogul Nabil Karoui, who has established the new Qalb Tounes party. Karoui has gained a large following through television appearances on his Nesma channel and by providing aid to impoverished areas through his charity, Khalil Tounes. Another is Slim Riahi, a self-exiled businessman who was sentenced for bouncing checks amid accusations of money laundering, and who is conducting his campaign remotely from Paris.

Whether the election results in the victory of one of the establishment candidates, as many analysts predict, or an outsider, the next president and members of parliament must work to improve their capacity to respond to voter concerns and address the challenges that the country faces. This is why international organizations like IRI must continue their political party building and civic engagement efforts in the run up to the presidential and parliamentary elections and beyond.

We should not forget that the discontent that sparked the Arab Spring was not only about liberty, but also economic dignity. Today, politics may have advanced, but the economy has not. Some may argue that continued economic stagnation and corruption are threatening the resilience of Tunisian democracy. However, if the Tunisian experience has shown us anything, it is the zealous commitment of its political leadership, despite ideological and policy disagreements, to a “Tunisia first” democratic course. And this is where hope lies.