Why Tunisian elections matter

The campaign added to the distrust Tunisians have of their politicians but, nonetheless, the overwhelming majority still believes in the merit of their fledgling democracy.
Saturday 07/09/2019
Tunisians look at posters of presidential candidates in Tunis. (AFP)
Moment of choice. Tunisians look at posters of presidential candidates in Tunis. (AFP)

About a week from now, Tunisians will go to the polls to elect their next president. People at home and abroad will be watching closely.

The new Tunisian president will never have access to a “nuclear football” or cause Wall Street panic with a tweet or two. Still, the Tunisia vote matters.

It will matter, first of all, for Tunisians themselves. Considering the vitriolic accusations and the flying muck, including allegations of abuse of power and political exploitation of the death of siblings, voters have been coping well.

More important, voters have not lost confidence in the electoral process. The campaign added to the distrust Tunisians have of their politicians but, nonetheless, the overwhelming majority still believes in the merit of their fledgling democracy, with all its hiccups, has given them the means of making a free choice. Turnout will be crucial for making that kind of determination.

Legal and political initiatives might be necessary after the election to review safeguards against illicit campaign financing and conflict of interest practices and irregularities in opinion polling.

The vote will have regional and international implications. Considering the unsettled situations in Libya and Algeria, the success or failure of Tunisians in their third democratic contest since the 2011 uprising could have a bearing on regional stability.

Tunisians across the spectrum, in tune with their culturally ingrained humility, do not see their democratic experience as offering lessons their neighbours should or could emulate.

Considering the violence and bloodshed since the 2011 upheaval across the region, very few Tunisian politicians are sanguine about the West’s mystified perception of the “Arab spring.” The late President Beji Caid Essebsi described it as a European fantasy. “There is only a Tunisian spring,” he used to say.

Tunisians are, however, deeply attached to their gained freedoms. No leader at the helm of the state will attempt to challenge that. However, there are challenges to democratic rule, including neo-authoritarian tendencies as well as the continued existence of radical Salafist constituencies. Imposing the legitimate authority of the state while preserving the rights and freedoms of citizens will require a delicate balance from Tunisia’s rulers and mental agility from their Western partners.

The future stability of Tunisia and its economic recovery will also depend to a great deal on the support of European and other foreign partners. As it struggles with the issue of illegal migration from North African shores, Europe sees Tunisia’s stability as vital to its security interests. Tunisian rulers, regardless of who wins the vote, however, cannot serve as Europe’s sentries. They have a public opinion that clamours for a two-way relationship that goes beyond the xenophobic isolationism of Europe’s populists.

Security is also part of the equation in that relationship. The enhanced ability of Tunisia to regain control of its fight against jihadists will carry positive implications beyond its borders. Chaos and the fraying of the state would have the opposite result.

Even if no constitutional amendments are adopted to boost the prerogatives of the head of the state, Tunisia’s next president will have the final say in matters of national security.

Drawing an adequate counter-extremism strategy will require a chief executive with both vision and resolve. It will also need a fluid connection between the Kasbah and the Carthage Palace. The country cannot afford the type of disconnect that prevailed for many months between Caid Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

Drawing comprehensive strategies requires an overarching approach that goes beyond constitutional prerogatives. The current electoral campaigns have echoed demands for constitutional amendments towards that end but Tunisia’s next legislature risks being even more factitious than the current one, making constitutional amendments difficult to adopt.

During the last eight years, strategic vision did not seem a priority for Tunisian leaders. Their dialogue and cooperation with regional and Western powers were more dictated by expediency than by well-thought-out choice.

Time has come for that posture to change. Faced with strong social pressures and limited resources, Tunisia’s rulers have needed — and will need — their foreign partners’ goodwill to ease the pressures they face at home but they should have more to offer to the world than requests for help.

Tunisian leaders can build on their democratic achievements to offer the world fresh, new ideas on fighting extremism, promoting tolerance and building a global basis for shared prosperity. The new president can show by his sense of vision and leadership that Tunisian elections do matter.