Tunisians need to take voting seriously — even if their president doesn’t
What if an aspiring autocrat held an election and barely anyone showed up? This question looms large following Tunisia’s December 17 parliamentary election. With the electoral commission conceding that no more than 11 percent of registered voters cast ballots in an poll boycotted by all the main parties—and with little reason to expect that these figures will climb much higher for the January 20 second round of elections—it is tempting to conclude that for President Kais Saied the election was a fiasco.
After all, having written a new constitution designed to create a parliament subservient to the president, most autocrats would have worked hard to ensure that a respectable number of voters would show up at on election day. But this would have required a political machine and so such apparatus was created. Yet if the president lacks a clear vision of how to consolidate power, the main obstacle to democracy is not Saied, or even the still incomplete autocratic institutions he has created: rather, it is the disaffection of everyday Tunisians with politics itself. The international community and the US in particular can play its part. But it is ultimately up to the country’s leaders to help the populace to beyond this towering sense of despair and apathy.
Saied’s Strange Thought Process
While many observers have argued that the December 17 election was a humiliation for Saied, it is not obvious that he really cared all that much, or that he has suffered a sense of personal defeat that punctured his considerable ego. In fact, it possible that Saied believed that low voter turnout would only illustrate the people’s contempt for western-style representative democracy.
The problem is that we have little to no idea of what is going on inside Saied’s head. He evinces a strange, if perhaps useful, mix of Machiavellianism and neo-utopian Rousseauism. The former can be seen in his manipulation of identity conflicts pitting secular and Islamist leaders against each other, while the latter is visible in his use of simple religious and culturally conservative themes to inspire support in rural areas, even as he champions a radical, bottom-up politics. This brand of populism seems dominated by a form of magical thinking that is dissociated from hard facts, the most crucial of which is Tunisia’s collapsing economy.
Observers could be forgiven for assuming that with the pending meeting of the IMF’s executive board—whose green light is needed to issue a new $1.9 billion loan for Tunisia—Saied had every reason to take the December 17 election seriously. His failure to do so, or perhaps his inability to present a cogent economic strategy, prompted the IMF to postpone the meeting at a perilous moment for Tunisia. The grim facts speak for themselves: Inflation has climbed to 9.1 percent, unemployment is at 18 percent, and foreign investors are fleeing. This exodus includes Novartis, Bayer, and GlaxoSmithKline, as well as Royal Dutch Shell, whose operations provide 40 percent of the country’s domestic natural gas production. And yet, when Saied was in Washington and was asked by administration officials and members of the Washington Post’s editorial board what steps he envisioned for the economy, he reportedly provided few details, while asserting that he would help small businesses and combat unemployment.
As for his plans for the coming months, Saied is trying to signal optimism, insisting that the next round of voting will demonstrate the people’s commitment to his project. But what is that project? The new parliament, such as it is, will be tasked with passing legislation to create a new, regionally-based second assembly. If this proposed body accords with Saied’s populist vision of a “people-led” democracy, no one (including perhaps the president) appears to know how it will actually work. Ultimately, he is guided by a kind of wishful thinking rather than hard facts.
Saied’s psychology is naturally a serious problem for his own government. Prime Minister Najla Bouden has apparently made some efforts to push for the restructuring of public enterprises. But Saied doesn’t seem at all interested or even supportive. He may be assuming that his best option is to let Bouden take the fall for any backlash against austerity measures. But as the postponement of the IMF’s meeting suggests, without Saied’s clear commitment to the fund’s agreement and a realistic political plan to undergird it, there is no reason to assume that the prime minister has any room for maneuver.
Elite Divides and Popular Disaffection
Given Saied’s limitations, hopes for relieving Tunisia of its troubles will rest on two things. First, on the capacity and the will of political leaders to create an organized alternative outside of, or parallel to, whatever type of parliament emerges in the coming months. And second, on the ability of any such organized alternative and its leaders to muster real popular support.
There are several obstacles in the way of achieving these outcomes. One is enduring tensions between Islamist and secular-oriented political leaders. But ideological polarization endures, as was demonstrated during a November 22 event with former Saied’s growing use of repression has produced a tactical meeting of the minds between opposition leaders over their shared demand for both his resignation and the reinstatement of the previous parliament. And yet there is little love lost when it comes to Ennahda. Thus, the recent arrest of former Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh on what are probably fabricated “terrorism” charges, elicited little protest from secular leaders. If anything, a sparsely attended December 23 protest in front of the Justice Ministry, which was organized and led by Ennahda leaders, underscored the party’s isolation.
The second obstacle is widespread apathy to politics itself. This sentiment can be partly attributed to the exhaustion of the citizenry in the midst of an economic crisis that has sapped the energy and attention of the poor and of a frayed middle class as well. But the bigger problem is that most Tunisians do not believe that the political institutions established in 2014 have any credibility. This pervasive sense of apathy is underscored in an unreleased poll undertaken by a Tunisia based democracy assistance organization. This detailed poll, which this author has reviewed, shows that the vast majority of Tunisians reject all the existing parties and their leaders including the Islamist oriented Ennahda Party. Saied’s support has dropped some 20 percept over the last year—but he still retains support from some forty percent of the voters.
The UGTT and Prospects for a New National Dialogue
From the start of Saied’s power grab, a stalemated political arena has awaited the decision of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) to break with Saied. With the UGTT being the only national body with the capacity for mass mobilization, its fence-sitting over the last year has deprived the opposition of the ally it needs to pressure Saied. This logjam may have been broken on December 20, when UGTT Chair Noureddine Taboubi stated, “We will not let you [Saied] mess with the country…If you do not understand the message, the people will say their word through peaceful struggle.” Moreover, the UGTT has now demanded that the second round of elections be postponed to “avoid chaos.” But beyond making such demands, the union must still decide how to deploy its national network of local bureaus and leaders.
One scenario that the UGTT’s leaders now appear to be considering is to push for a new national dialogue. Having led “Quartet” of 4 civil society groups that organized 2014 National Dialogue (for which the organizers won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015), the UGTT might seem well positioned to once again play this national role. But it is far from clear that its present leader, Noureddine Taboubi, has the credibility and popularity to lead a national dialogue, one that will surely be opposed by the president and quite possibly ignored by much of the population. Moreover, the union’s opposition to adopting any austerity measures that are part of the IMF plan could also undermine its effort to lead a dialogue.
The Biden Administration’s Struggle
And yet if Taboubi’s current consultations do gain momentum, they might provide the US with a chance to encourage a path forward, one that will be seen as rooted in Tunisia, rather than the product of foreign pressures. But this will not be easy. In the lead up to the December 17 vote, the Biden administration tried to signal its concerns about Saied’s autocratic actions. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken took a light touch, reiterating the United States’ “deep commitment to Tunisian democracy and to supporting the aspirations of the Tunisian people for a democratic and prosperous future.” For his part, Saied offered a bizarre review of the US and Tunisian constitutions, while claiming that his drafting of a new constitution this year was necessary because Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution was tailor-made for a “specific group.” In his meeting with the Washington Post’s editorial board, he made this conspiratorial message explicit, saying, “Enemies of democracy in Tunisia.” want to “do everything they can to torpedo the country’s democratic…from within.”
Saied’s paranoia will, of course, complicate any potential US effort to support a process of domestic reconciliation without appearing to twist arms in ways that play into Saied’s hands. Reaching this sweet spot may ultimately prove impossible. But it is worth trying, especially since the confrontational approach advocated by some analysts and former US diplomats could undercut the still fragile efforts to forge a national dialogue. The US and its western allies can and must help. But at the end of the day, only Tunisians can save Tunisia.
This piece has been republished with permission from Arab Center Washington DC.