Tunisia Heads for Polls Amidst Economic Slowdown, Squsbbling and Crack Down on Islamic Extremist
Tunisia has, over the past year, witnessed shifting political allegiances; the emergence of new power blocs; and strikes and demonstrations reflecting the peoples' dismay with a stagnating economy. These factors could influence the outcome of the second post revolution Parliamentary and Presidential elections scheduled to be held on October 6 and November 10,2019.
The current President of Tunisia is 92 year old Beji Caid Essebsi former leader of the dominant party Nidaa Tounes. The Prime Minister is Youssef Chahed, leader of the secular Tahya Tounes which he formed this year after differences with the President's son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, the ostensible leader of the Nidaa Tounes. Chahed also took with him a large number of lawmakers who had been chafing under the President' imposed leadership of his son over the party.
After the ouster of strongman Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 following the Arab Spring civil unrest, or revolution as it is usually called, a new Constituent Assembly was elected on 23rd October 2011. The constitution-drafting between 2012 and 201 created intense political polarization between Islamists and secularists.
Islamist party Ennahdha had emerged victorious in the Constituent Assembly elections. Tensions increased after the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a prominent member of the leftist coalition Popular Front and secular Tunisian politician Mohamed Brahmi both in 2013 with many believing that Ennahdha sympathized with extremists,
Finally a compromise led to the fashioning of a new constitution and a Cabinet of technocrats took office following which the first elections to Parliament were held in 2014.
Tunisia's Majlis NuwwÄb ash-Sha'b or Assembly of the Representatives of the People, consists of 217 seats. Elections in Tunisia for the President and the unicameral Assembly of the Representatives of the People are to be held every five years. The assembly can be dissolved before finishing a full term. The first elections for the Assembly of the Representative of the People took place on 26 October 2014 and it replaced the Constituent Assembly
The assembly is directly elected by the people using party-list proportional representation, with the individual seats distributed between lists in a constituency using largest remainder method. The lists are closed, a voter can only choose between lists, and not individual candidates. The lists are required to alternate between men and women. Constituencies are based on the governorates of Tunisia.
Each governorate is allocated one seat for every 60000 inhabitants, with one more seat if the remaining number of inhabitants exceed 30000. governorates with less than 270000 inhabitants are granted two extra seats, while governorates with between 270000 and 500000 inhabitants granted one extra seat. A constituency can have a maximum of 10 seats, if a governorate is entitled to more than 10 seats, it will be divided into two or more constituencies. Additionally, there are a number of constituencies representing Tunisians abroad.
The President of Tunisia is directly elected by universal suffrage for a 5-year term. The president is elected by majority, with a second round with the top-two finishers if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote in the first round. A person cannot serve more than two terms as president. The first direct presidential election after the revolution was held in 2014 bringing Beji Caid Essebsi, the leader of the Nidaa Tounes party, to the Presidential office.
The legislative and presidential elections of 2014 marked the end of Tunisia's transition period-and in a sense the beginning of the political maneuvering that continues till today. Nidaa Tounes won with 86 out of a total 217 parliamentary seats. Ennahdha came in second with 69 seats. A month later, Nidaa's founder, Beji Caid Essebsi, won the presidency. The compromise process was aided by the National Dialogue Quartet, a group of human rights activists, labor union leaders, and lawyers who helped the framing of a consensus and were later awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.
But by 2015, dozens of Nidaa Tounes party members had resigned, including leading figure Mohsen Marzouk, who went on to form his own party: Mashrou Tounes, or the "Tunisia Project".
The ruling party then fashioned the Carthage Agreement in July2016 that formalized the establishment of a National Unity Government (NUG). Under the NUG, the ruling coalition (Ennahdha, Nidaa Tounes, Afek Tounes, and the Free Patriotic Union) brought in five opposition parties (Machrou Tounes, al-Moubadara, al-Joumhouri, al-Massar, and Harakat el-Chaab), as well as three unions (the Tunisian General Labor Union, the Tunisian Union for Industry,
Trade, and Handicrafts, and the Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fishery). The objective was to use the NUG to create stability by allowing major political parties and influential civil society groups to play a formal role to meet priorities like combatting terrorism, improving governance and fiscal policy, reducing unemployment, fighting corruption, and addressing regional disparities.
The coalition government's first major action was to replace then Prime Minister Habib Essid with Youssef Chahed.
The NUG experiment was not a success as it deprived the system of a meaningful opposition. Difficult policy decisions could not be taken and reports suggest that a plethora of bills remained to be debated and voted upon in the Assembly. Policies initiated actually blocked, postponed, or reversed core demands of the 2010-2011 uprising eroding faith in the system.
On September 24, 2018, Caid Essebsi announced the end of his party's alliance with Ennahdha after four years of governing as a coalition. Shortly thereafter, he publicly supported the accusation that Ennahdha planned the assassination of leftist leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013, although he refrained from accusing Ennahdha directly.
Tunisia, which had been singled out as the sole success story of the 2010-2011 Arab Spring uprisings, has been faced with an economic slowdown and public unrest. Economic indicators spell out the worsening of the socio-economic situation in Tunisia since 2014.
The unemployment rate, especially among the young and educated, increased from 23 percent in 2010 to 30 percent in 2018; the corruption perception index improved by only two points from 2012 to 2018.
The country has witnessed a number of protests against the government's mismanagement of the economy with international donors such as the International Monetary Fund, who have kept the country afloat, also uneasy with the continuing instability caused by the political squabbling that had impacted adversely on decision making and slowed economic reforms.
A nationwide strike by Tunisia's General Labour Union (UGTT) was avoided when, in February 2019, the government agreed to wage increases. Over the past years ten successive Cabinets have failed to resolve economic problems, including high inflation and unemployment.
Tunisian anger at the high cost of living, unemployment and decline of state services since the overthrow of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 was evident in the recent protests which included women and youth shouting slogans reminiscent of the 2011 period and declaring -"People want to overthrow the regime. We want justice and dignity. Streets and clashes until the regime falls".
Unlike in other countries in the region the Tunisian armed forces have so far refrained from any crackdown against the protestors at the government's behest. The Tunisian military has long chafed at being marginalized in the policy making process and unhappy with the wage structure and lack of new and modern equipment. Officers are keen to increase their influence over national security policy and many have endorsed the political defections that have been taking place.
Another factor responsible for the military's hands-off approach to the protests is that many of the lower ranks come from the country's interior regions which have been neglected as compared to the coastal areas and have therefore been often at the forefront of the protests. Their sympathies tend to lie with the protestors.
Interestingly, the 2014 Tunisian Constitution which guaranteed equal representation for women and men in elected institutions based on the principle of parity has created a situation where women represent more than a third of the seats in the Tunisian parliament-- more than even in the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress and well above the global average of 18 percent. But they are yet to make inroads into the highest decision making levels.
Tunisia's population was estimated at 11,783,168 in early 2019. But though the legal voting age is 18, youth participation in the political sphere is dismal. Nearly 80 percent of young Tunisians (eighteen to twenty-five years old) did not vote in the 2014 parliamentary election, and a similar percentage abstained from voting in the presidential elections.
Surveys suggest a major disenchantment with political parties and parliament as the reason for the abstentions. Youth remain absent from the highest levels of party leadership though, with Yousef Chahed as Prime Minister, the average age of the Cabinet has come down.
Tunisia has been a major source of recruits for jihadi groups in the region. Thousands of Tunisians joined terrorist groups across the Middle East and North Africa and Tunisian fighters joined both Al Qaeda and Islamic State in large numbers. They were currently said to be active in both Syria and Libya.
Some analysts suggest that the freedom and civil liberties introduced after the 2011 Revolution provided a conducive environment for extremist groups for recruiting cadres on ideological grounds and as a consequence of poor socio-economic conditions that made many Tunisians receptive to radical ideas.
Seifallah Ben Hassine the founder of the Tunisian Combat Group (TCG), a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization linked with al-Qaeda, was released and formed the Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST). By 2012, Tunisian authorities had identified two other al-Qaeda-linked groups that were carrying out violent attacks in the country's northwest: Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi (KUIN) and the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade. Ansar al-Sharia at one time claimed to have recruited as many as 70,000 Tunisians since its formation in February 2011.
Since the beginning of 2016, more than 15,000 suspected extremists were said to have been monitored by Tunisian security forces. In 2016 the Tunisian government reportedly dismantled more than 160 jihadist cells and arrested over 850 suspected terrorists.
The violence still continues though at a diminished level with one of the latest reported incidents being the killing of five civilians and 15 police officers in a suicide bombing in central Tunis by a 30-year-old woman named Mna Guebla on October 29, 2018 .
Tunisia has suffered at the hands of these groups whose targeting focused on a prime revenue earner for Tunisia-tourism. In addition to police officers and civilians the terrorists had, since 2011, targeted museums, cruise ships, hotels --exacting a heavy toll in tourists killed. The authorities had also seized kill lists naming politicians, anti-Islamist media figures, and academics. The resulting loss of tourism revenue has been a blow to the country making it more dependent on donors.
The United States of America has been providing both financial and materiel aid and training to assist Tunisia's to counter terrorism efforts. Tunisia has worked to improve its security infrastructure and had created the Agency for Defense Intelligence and Security, which served to increase the army's role in counterterrorism operations.
The government had also aunched the National Commission on Counter-Terrorism, which, in November 2016, had introduced a new strategy to fight "terrorism and extremism" that was developed alongside the country's National Security Council. Though few details of the strategy were publicly released, a presidential statement said the plan had four main pillars: "prevention, protection, judicial proceedings, and retaliation.
In the forthcoming elections Ennahdha, Tunisia's largest party, is favoured by the polls to win. The party's propsects have been improved by the internecine squabbling and defections in its coalition partner and main rival Nidaa Tounes. In the run up to the elections Nidaa Younes ended up holding two parallel party congresses.
Although the first electoral congress sought to highlight party unity it ended with two leaders being elected in two parallel congresses further exacerbating the internal divisions in the party. One congress elected lawmaker Sofian Toubel as head of the party''s central committee while the other chose Hafedh Caid Essebsi, the son of President Beji Caid Essebsi.
The President's son had faced considerable criticism for seeking to control the party and many of the leaders of the party had resigned. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed had accused Hafedh Caid Essebsi of exporting the party's problems to the state.
There is uncertainty also about who will be the new President. The incumbent Beji Caid Essebsi has told his party Nidaa Tounes that he would not be in the fray. Except for Nabil Karoui head of the group Karoui & Karoui World and the televisionchannel Nessmawho has declared that he is in the fray, no other names have been mentioned so far.
But it is early days yet and the political maneuvering will only escalate as the election dates draw closer and provide observers a more coherent picture.