Tunisia’s economic woes are concern to majority, poll shows
Washington and Tunis - Tunisians are frustrated by their country’s stagnant economy and worried about its future, a poll conducted in summer 2015 by the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI) concluded. Tunisian and US pollsters interviewed 1,225 Tunisians over the age of 18.
When asked about the overall economic situation in Tunisia, 60% of respondents said it was “very bad” and another 21% called it “somewhat bad”. Only 18% of Tunisians said the economy was performing well.
Asked to rank the biggest problem confronting Tunisia, 61% ranked unemployment either first or second; 34% ranked terrorism first or second (the poll was completed, however, prior to the terrorist attack in Sousse). More broadly, 72% of those asked said Tunisia is “going in the wrong direction”, compared with 21% who expressed satisfaction with the country’s evolution.
Recent economic data tend to corroborate pessimistic forecasts. Official figures show current gross domestic product (GDP) growth at no more than 0.7%, far below what is necessary to bolster employment and personal income, and showed an increase of unemployment to more than 15%.
Both estimates may deteriorate further as the tourism sector remains in crisis following the Sousse terrorist attack in June.
While Tunisians remain supportive of their democracy — 73% of respondents declared themselves “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with the political system — the poll captured potentially disturbing trends. For example, when offered a choice between “a stable and prosperous Tunisia” that would be ruled by an “authoritarian government” or a “democratic government” that would lead to an “unstable and insecure Tunisia”, 58% of Tunisians queried chose “stability and prosperity” over “democracy”; 36% rated “democracy” as the higher value.
By contrast, a similar question posed to Tunisians in January 2012 resulted in 70% of those asked rated “democracy” over “stability and prosperity”. This dramatic shift reflects the toll that the economic crisis and the rise in terrorist incidents have had on the Tunisian public over the past three years. It also reveals that, as eager as Tunisians were in 2012 to establish a democratic system, any form of government ultimately will be assessed on performance and ability to meet peoples’ needs.
Tunisian constitutional jurist and university professor Amine Mahfoudh says much has to do with the proportional voting system adopted during the 2014 elections and which did not allow any political party to win a clear majority. “The legal choices made did serve the political and economic stability. This explains why so many Tunisians [say] that security and stability are more important than the political process,” he said. Mahfoudh called for amending the electoral code so Tunisia could “implement the democratic project while safeguarding security and stability”.
Tunisians by a 27-point margin — 57%-30% — said the 2014 parliamentary elections were “transparent and credible” and 65% said they were “likely” or “somewhat likely” to vote in municipal and regional elections in 2016.
At the personal level, Tunisia’s elected leaders remain popular. President Beji Caid Essebsi enjoys an approval rating of 61% while Prime Minister Habib Essid’s performance was approved by 54% of respondents.
A closer look at the poll results uncovers positive trends. For example, by overwhelming numbers Tunisians expressed a desire to more actively engage in the world economy. Nearly 80% of poll participants said that foreign companies investing and building factories in Tunisia were “very good” for the economy.
Tunisians also revealed a strong entrepreneurial spirit: 81% told pollsters that the government should turn over state-owned land to individual farmers and entrepreneurs. When Tunisians were asked what would be their ideal form of employment, the number one answer — with 36% — was “self-employed or owner of a small business.” Foreign investors and aid agencies should consider the ramifications of these responses.
The IRI poll shows that Tunisians clearly want their democracy to work and are willing to give it time. But equally clear is the fact that without real economic progress, Tunisians will increasingly turn sour on their political system.
“The democratic project still constitutes the dream of Tunisians. But the most important thing for the country’s citizens is the feeling of security,” Mahfoudh said.