For voters in Tunisia, it feels like a roll of the dice

The economy, more than anything, will be on voters’ minds as they head to the polls.
Saturday 14/09/2019
Countdown to D-day. Workers of Tunisia's Independent High Authority for Elections dispatch ballot boxes to polling stations in Tunis, September 14. (AFP)
Countdown to D-day. Workers of Tunisia's Independent High Authority for Elections dispatch ballot boxes to polling stations in Tunis, September 14. (AFP)

ARIANA - With Tunisia’s election season under way, many voters remained undecided for whom they will vote for parliament or president and many expressed disillusionment with a government they say has done little to address their grievances.

“The mood is a blend of gloomy and tense,” said Haytham Abid, a 33-year-old engineer, as he stood by a campaign party of the Islamist Ennahda Movement in Ariana, a southern suburb of Tunis.

While Abid said he believes in democracy he also said he fears politicians’ failures since the 2011 uprising could allow incompetent candidates to take power or cause Tunisia to drift back to its “old authoritarian reflexes.”

Bystanders seemed to share Abid’s concerns, highlighting unkept promises by Tunisian politicians election after election.

“We have heard many promises that sound quite similar to those made by politicians during the 2011 Tunisian Constituent Assembly election and in the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections,” said one man in his 40s.

Distrust of political figures is widespread in Tunisia, where many citizens have seen their economic conditions deteriorate since 2011 and feel abandoned by Carthage’s elite.

“The political parties in the country have given people the impression that they are not listening to their concerns,” Hassan Zargouni, president of Sigma Conseil, a Tunisian research and statistics bureau, told the French weekly Le Point.

Zargouni, who has monitored and analysed Tunisia’s political climate since 2011, said a general mistrust of the political class led voters to turn against the establishment.

“A new trend is taking three very distinct forms in Tunisia,” said Zargouni, a nostalgia for autocracy that “feeds on the incapacity of the current state and its laxity,” the appeal of populist discourses and an “antisystem crystallisation” that happens when the people consider “the system as a party cartel, a caste, whose sole purpose is to enjoy the advantages of power.” A fourth form, Zargouni said, is passive abstention from the political process.

This, Zargouni contended, could spell trouble for Tunisia’s political class, which has made little progress in addressing slow economic growth and high unemployment.

The economy, more than anything, will be on voters’ minds as they head to the polls. Nationwide, unemployment stands at 15%, inflation has risen to 7% and the cost of living has increased by more than 30% since 2016.

Leading up to the 2019 elections, analysts and politicians said a lack of economic progress could pose a threat to Tunisia’s democratic project.

The International Crisis Group, a think-tank in Belgium, warned of a “general crisis of confidence in the political elite” in Tunisia. The group urged the European Union to support measures that would prevent further polarisation, including macro-financial assistance, reforms to public administration and the creation of a politically diverse Constitutional Court.

Similar concerns were expressed by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, which said serious obstacles stand in the way of strengthening Tunisia’s political gains

“The danger is that Tunisia becomes a hybrid regime in which democratic elements and processes are muddled with authoritarian reflexes and sometimes anti-democratic measures,” the German think-tank said in March.

On September 8, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian weighed in on Tunisia’s status, saying its “democratic transition is taking place properly.” However, he declined to comment on the case of jailed media mogul and presidential contender Nabil Karoui, who has been held since August 23 on charges of money laundering and tax evasion.

For many Tunisians, Karoui’s arrest ten days before the campaign was reminiscent of the country’s autocratic past and raised questions about the independence of the judiciary.

Fears that the democratic process is under threat were exacerbated by harsh political infighting, including smear campaigns, and the dissemination of fake news on social media.

Many Tunisians have complained that they are left in the dark about the election process because of the independent electoral body’s ruling to ban the publication of opinion polls during the official campaign period, which began September 2.

The lack of official polling led to confusion as prospective voters find themselves flooded with political ads and unsourced polls on social media, making it difficult to discern the support of candidates.

Even Tunisia’s first televised presidential debates, praised as a historic moment for the country and the region, seem to have played little part in providing clarity to voters.

Though eager to hear candidates’ platforms directly, many Tunisians criticised the debates’ “poor format” that did not allow for much critical engagement and complained that most prospective leaders put up a “dull performance.”

Political scientist and communications professor Larbi Chouikha said the debates were little more than a “facade.”

“In the televised debates we watched, the adopted format highlighted simply the look, appearance and manners… of candidates rather than their intrinsic value, their mastery of the subjects at hand, the depth of their analyses, the relevance of their ideas and the reliability of their proposals,” Chouikha said.

With so much disillusionment and uncertainty, it remains to be seen who will lead Tunisian politics for the next five years.

“For both parliamentary and presidential elections, it’s a roll of a dice,” said Cyrine Hjaiej, who studies medicine at university, as she scanned campaign posters on a wall in Ariana. “Of course, nothing will be clear before October, when the results of the parliamentary elections will be communicated to the public.”

“I believe the results of the parliamentary election will conclusively determine the outcome of the presidential race, in its second round,” she added.

Tunisians head to the polls for the first round of presidential elections September 15, with parliamentary elections in October. If no presidential candidate receives a majority of the vote, the top two contenders will head to a run-off November 2.