Tunisian political system seen as inhibiting recovery

Sunday 08/05/2016

Tunis - If Tunisia were to pursue the same measures for a long time without addressing ap­parent flaws of its governing system, it runs the risk of ending in a “democratic fail­ure” in the eyes of a majority of its citizens yearning for a better life, said Hatem Ben Salem, director of the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank.

Ben Salem is a former minister of Education and deputy minister of Foreign Affairs. He has served as ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva and also to Turkey and Senegal.

“The fear is that the democratic experiment would become associ­ated with lack of results in eco­nomic, social and cultural fields,” Ben Salem said of political devel­opments in Tunisia.

“The issue we face is that at some point, if there are no achieve­ments to benefit all the population, democracy will be associated with failure and this will be a disaster for the future of the country.”

Tunisia has, since 2011, twice had parliamentary elections and a presidential vote allowing the country to be widely perceived as a successful Arab experiment with multiparty democracy.

The country is the first Arab state in more than 40 years to be graded “free” by the US-based de­mocracy advocacy group Freedom House but a cumbersome party-based regime is seen as prevent­ing democracy to bear fruit for an increasingly weary population.

For most Tunisians, the coun­try is wading in an economic and social crisis compounded by jihadist threats both domestically and from the region, including neighbouring Libya.

Unemployment rose to 15.3% in 2015 compared to about 12% in 2010. Joblessness is driven by weak growth and a decline in investment coupled with a rise in the number of university gradu­ates, who comprise one-third of jobless Tunisians.

“Previous governments used to suffer from controversies about their legitimacy. That structural weakness is gone as the presi­dent and the parliament enjoy the legitimacy bestowed by the voters following the legislative and presidential elections,” said Ben Salem.

After a showdown between secularists and Islamists threatened to plunge the coun­try into violence in 2013, an Islamist-dominated govern­ment stepped down and was replaced by technocrats who organised presidential and legisla­tive elections in 2014.

Secularist-leaning coalition Nidaa Tounes came in first in the parliamentary vote and its leader, Beji Caid Essebsi, won the presi­dency, triggering widespread hope about more stability and growth.

Tunisia, however, has yet to advance reforms that could free the country’s growth potential and help it tackle unemployment and regional development.

Caid Essebsi has acknowledged repeatedly the stalemate, asking people for patience while deplor­ing that “no work is being done” in the country.

“It is probably, probably that the hesitation we observe has dashed hope of the population as many expected the authorities, which are enjoying legitimacy and more latitude, to undertake the needed reforms in order to change the political, economic and social situations,” Ben Salem said.

The government is en­tangled in complications stemming from a system dominated by political parties struggling with their own weaknesses.

“The nature of the political regime spawned by the new constitution has resulted in neither the president nor the head of the government being able to work freely and as­sume their own responsibilities in undertaking the reforms they see necessary,” said Ben Salem.

“I see that weakness and inad­equacy as due to the nature of the Tunisian regime, which is neither a parliamentarian nor presidential nor even a hybrid system. It is a regime of political parties.”

He added: “These parties are relatively new groups that have had no time or experience to build reasonable programmes and agen­das that square with the needs of the state and the possibilities of the country.”

Because of its splintering, Nidaa Tounes — although the winner of last elections — has relinquished its status as leading party in parliament to the Islamist party Ennahda. This new situation, some secularist politicians have complained, contradicts the will of the voters.

Asked if there is an urgency to revise the constitution towards a more balanced and efficient system of government, Ben Salem said the country needed more time to digest its political experience before taking such a step.

However, political sources in main political groups said they expected no change in the govern­ment or constitution before local elections, which are in mid- 2017.