Tunisia’s economic woes are concern to majority, poll shows

Friday 04/09/2015

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.