Looking ahead after Tunisia’s elections

Saied’s promise to revitalise Tunisia’s economic diplomacy cannot be realised outside the constant tenets of Tunisia’s traditional, open and balanced diplomacy.
Saturday 19/10/2019
Tunisian election workers count votes of a second round runoff of a presidential election in Tunis, October 14. (Reuters)
Tunisian election workers count votes of a second round runoff of a presidential election in Tunis, October 14. (Reuters)

October 13 marked the end of another round of presidential and parliamentary elections in Tunisia but what lessons could be learnt from the vote?

The main result of the elections was that Tunisian voters were very tough on the ruling class — liberals and Islamists alike — who had led the country since 2011. They seemed to say the ruling elite had failed to meet expectations of the “Arab spring.”

Foremost among those expectations were economic aspirations, such as reducing unemployment and public debt, controlling prices and creating economic growth. What happened was the opposite and voters punished those leaders, including the Islamists, who, even though they took the lead in the election, lost two-thirds of their electoral base, compared with the 2011 elections.

The second lesson was that freedom of expression is meaningless in the absence of individual and collective dignity.

Dignity can only be achieved by providing a minimum level of economic necessities and basic services, including in health and education and greater judicial independence. This has not happened, at least not at the expected pace and degree. On the contrary, indicators show that the crisis has worsened. Voters expressed their disappointment with the ruling elite because most Tunisians do not distinguish between freedom and dignity.

It is safe to say that, with the end of the 2019 electoral marathon, Tunisia has initiated a second stage of the 2011 uprising by calling for a readjustment of the direction of governance and not falling again for revolutionary populism. The country must pay attention to its international obligations and to its extremely difficult economic and social situation, which requires concrete and appropriate measures, not revolutionary sloganeering.

The country faces many challenges.

It has major socio-economic problems to tackle by urgently adopting a plan to eradicate poverty and stem corruption, which was widespread before and after 2011.

Tunisia needs a national plan for its economy based on a resumption of a strong export pattern in phosphates and other industrial and agricultural products. It needs profound fiscal reforms, greater regional development and greater compression of public wages and control of inflation and debt ratios.

These goals require a workable economic road map with specified deadlines and that considers the views of workers’ unions and business federations.

There is a need to achieve government stability through a constitutional amendment that would adopt a system in which the president wields 60% of the powers and the parliament holds the remaining 40%. Pending this constitutional amendment, which might take three years, the establishment of new constitutional bodies decided in the current constitution, especially the Constitutional Court and the Anti-Corruption Commission, must be hurried up.

The electoral law and system should also be revised. There is a need for issuing a financial and fiscal amnesty that preserves the financial rights of the state, while being flexible in recovering due taxes and removing sanctions.

In foreign policy, Tunisia’s next president, Kais Saied, needs to remove his revolutionary cloak and don that of the statesman. Foreign policy is not only principles but also interests and constraints that must be addressed.

Tunisia’s position on the Palestinian issue is the same as that of the United Nations, the Arab League, the African Union and the Maghreb Union. Tunis must adhere to this line of conduct and not override it. Tunisians should support what the Palestinians themselves agree upon, not try to outbid anyone in this area.

Saied’s promise to revitalise Tunisia’s economic diplomacy cannot be realised outside the constant tenets of Tunisia’s traditional, open and balanced diplomacy based on the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, respect for international legitimacy and compliance with the agreements signed by the Tunisian state.

Saied should work to revive and strengthen Tunisia’s ties with Arab Gulf countries. Tunisia should diversify partnerships in the Arab world, Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia.

Calls by Saied during the campaign to boost support for the men and women in uniform are to be lauded because they were the ones, along with civil society, who shielded the state from falling and disintegrating. However, Saied should strive to modernise the intelligence sector and develop an adequate cybersecurity system because the threat of terrorism is still present, especially considering that Islamic State fighters could flee northern Syria and head to North Africa and the Sahel.

There is no doubt that the Ennahda Movement knows that it lost two-thirds of its voter base, despite coming on top in the legislative elections with no more than 18% of the vote. This percentage will not allow it to form a government on its own.

Ennahda stands to face difficult days and has two solutions: either opt for early elections or accept to be part of a government of national salvation headed by an independent prime minister who is experienced in economic affairs. The new cabinet should not exceed 15 ministers and must enjoy parliamentary support from the most prominent political blocs. The cabinet members should not be partisan.

Political Islam has lost much of its lustre after Ennahda and its government partners were unable to manage the daily affairs of the state. The country’s main Islamist party must show it understands this lesson and take its distance from political Islam, ideologically and organisationally — in reality rather than in words.

This evolution away from religion-based party activism will pave the way for a new model of governance combining pragmatism, fighting corruption and full citizens’ participation in public affairs.

There are signs of this trend emerging through popular uprisings in the region, whether in Algeria, Sudan or other countries. Tunisia has a good chance of being a leader in this regard.