Tunisia after legislative and parliamentary elections: opportunities and challenges

Despite the difficulty of forming a government and domestic and foreign challenges facing Tunisia after its elections, the country is capable of securing the pillars of its democracy, due to the social awareness created by the revolution and Tunisians’ respect for the results of the ballot box.
30 October 2019
From left to right: Al Jazeera Mubasher presenter Mohammed Dahou (moderating), Ahmed Idris, Fathi Jarray, Mabrouka Khedir, Lotfi Hajji and Sami Ibrahim. [Al Jazeera]

Despite the difficulty of forming a government and the many domestic and foreign challenges facing Tunisia after its presidential and parliamentary elections, the country is capable of surmounting these challenges and securing the pillars of its democracy, thanks to the social awareness engendered by the revolution and Tunisians’ respect for the results of the ballot box.

These are the principal conclusions of a joint discussion panel organised by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies and the Centre des Etudes Méditerranéennes et Internationales (CEMI), in concert with Al Jazeera Mubasher, in Tunis on Tuesday, 22 October 2019. The discussion was attended by a select group of researchers, media personnel and experts.

Legislative elections: multiple readings

Panel participants offered multiple readings of the results of the legislative elections that saw Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia place first and second respectively. Some opined that it reflected Tunisian voters’ desire to punish those parties that had dominated the post-revolution political landscape for their poor performance. While affirming the salience of the punitive vote, others believed that the fact that most parliamentary seats went to party members indicated that voters were unable to abandon the existing party system regardless of its performance. In both cases, panellists agreed that the Tunisian state and society view the ballot box as the arbiter and respect its results.

Partisan parliament

Ahmed Idris, the director of CEMI in Tunisia, began by noting that the legislative elections returned 86 percent of the seats in parliament to members of political parties. In his view, this means that despite the importance of the punitive vote in this election, voters were not as able to elect as many representatives from outside the party system as they had hoped.

Idris added that the elections resulted in a notably fragmented parliament without any single bloc capable of leading and dominating it. While the constitution and law give the majority party the right to form and lead the government, he said, the political reality does not allow for such unilateral authority. Due to the fragmented nature of parliament, it will not be able to assure voters of a stable government performance.

No option but coalition government

Fathi Jarray, the chairman of the National Authority to Prevent Torture and the former minister of education, said that Tunisians are right to be proud of the achievements of their revolution, as a result of which the elections were transparent and fair.
Reading the results of the parliamentary elections, Jarray said, “On one hand, Tunisian voters punished the old parties that did not provide what they expected from them. On the other, they gave new figures and independent faces a chance to enter parliament in the hope that they may succeed where others failed.”

Jarray suggested that the only party with an electoral base that was unaffected by the punitive vote is Ennahda, although it did lose some seats. While this result was expected, what was not expected is for the parties not to find common ground for a consensus. All parties except Ennahda are in a double bind, Jarray said: they fear being burned and tainted by exercising power, but, he said, they have no choice but to reach an agreement and participate in governance.

Nevertheless, Jarray said, working with one another had forced parties improve their negotiating conditions and receive guarantees to implement the platforms they ran on, thereby, which will allow them to cultivate a loyal base of voters. He concluded his reading of the parliamentary elections by noting that the public was accustomed to the political class making last-minute concessions and agreements in order to avoid new elections.

Representation of women lacking

Tunisian media figure Mabrouka Khedir explained that the legislative elections had highlighted several omissions in the election law that should be reviewed. Speaking of women in the elections, she said that the representation of Tunisian women on party lists was lacking compared to previous years, but women could be active agents in parliament in the sense that they could have a strong presence and be well represented in ministries, particularly important, sovereign ministries.

Khedir added that the true test lies in how the presidency and parliament will come together to allow for the necessary accommodations and agreements, stressing the importance of consensus given a politically fragmented parliament. This will make it difficult for any coming government to be effective and achieve the hoped-for reforms, particularly long-awaited economic reforms.

New map reflects different mood

Lotfi Hajji, chief of Al Jazeera’s Tunis bureau, chose to present a reading of the results of the legislative elections using a comparative approach. Hajji said the current elections reflect the development of a social consciousness since the previous polls in 2011 and 2014. In the first elections after the revolution, Tunisians voted for revolutionary parties that played a major role in resisting the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. From 2011 to 2014, the political landscape shifted, as so-called old regime figures emerged, along with those wary of accountability and the domination of a particular ideology over politics. These fearful parties came together such that the 2014 elections seemed to represent a contest between the revolution and those who preferred incremental, slow change. In that election, Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda came out victorious, and politics were conducted under the shadow of these two parties.

Now in the 2019 elections, Hajji said, the landscape has shifted once more with the emergence of other parties, With the exception of Ennahda, which maintained its leading role despite the loss of some seats, the elections brought forth new parties who had no presence before.

Despite its fragmentation, the political map that has resulted, Hajji said, is more expressive of the mosaic of Tunisian society. There is Ennahda and more radical religious parties to its right, such as the Dignity Coalition, as well as a nationalist current and a liberal democratic faction. Tunisians have moved away from their previous stark ideological polarisation, and the final result is indicative of what is gestating within Tunisian society.

The importance of pluralism in the transitional phase

Sami Ibrahim, a researcher with the Center for Economic and Social Research and Studies in Tunisia, began by expressing his appreciation for the panel, saying it offered a useful correction to the understanding of politics as solely a struggle-oriented action, highlighting its nature as a craft of skill and art that requires a people who can view the future strategically. Speaking of the election outcomes, he said that Tunisia is still in the democratic transition phrase, with all the social transformations it entails.

He stressed the importance of this phase in defining the general foundations of the political and social project. Such foundations cannot be firmly fixed by an absolute majority or a two- or even three-party coalition. Instead, Ibrahim said, the democratic transition must be open to a broad spectrum of political and social actors and elites. This was the underlying philosophy of the Tunisian election law that governed the parliamentary elections, which aimed to prevent any single party from dominating the landscape or monopolising the process of laying the foundations of the transition period.

Since Tunisia is still in the democratic transition, it is natural that power has not suddenly shifted to two or three parties. At the same time, he said, we need to invent ways to minimise the fragmentation, perhaps by raising the threshold for the parliamentary representation of parties. He concluded by saying that the country had experienced a revolution and had successfully anchored a democratic political system.

Presidential elections challenges and priorities

In the second part of the panel, participants moved to an analysis of the presidential elections, which Kaïs Saïed won by large margin against his competitor, Nabil Karoui. Participants did not significantly differ in their assessment of the challenges facing the new president and the priorities he should address after taking the oath of office on Wednesday, 23 October 2019. Participants agreed that the greatest challenges were coordinating the work of the presidency, government, parliament, and state institutions and achieving tangible economic progress, particularly in job creation, tamping down unemployment, and providing goods and services at affordable prices for citizens. Foreign affairs also pose a challenge, particularly regarding those states that have rejected the push for change in the Arab world sparked by the revolutions of 2010 and 2011.

Apply the law and maintain the pillars of foreign policy

Ahmed Idris, the director of CEMI in Tunisia, said that there is little basis to analyse the policies that await Tunisia under the president-elect. Idris argued that the few policy glimpses that Kaïs Saïed gave to Tunisians do not give us a clear, detailed picture of foreign policy. Regarding his stance on the Palestinian issue, which he addressed in some speeches, Idris said this is standard for all Tunisian presidents. Nevertheless, Idris affirmed that the president-elect would enforce the law and statutes and that the foreign policy priorities articulated by the Foreign Ministry for decades will remain the same.

Limited constitutional prerogatives

Fathi Jarray, the president of the National Agency to Prevent Torture and the former minister of education, said it was important not to expect too much of the new president, citing his narrow prerogatives under the constitution and law. Nevertheless, Jarray that the president must judiciously manage state human resources as an important avenue for fighting corruption. Similarly, he must prioritise unemployment and job creation and approach the issue skilfully lest he lose his momentum. In foreign policy, Jarray pointed to the importance of developing relations with Algeria, Libya and the rest of North Africa, as well as well as promising African states. He must also be astute in managing ties with the Arab world, because, Jarray said, he is a discordant voice, in the sense that he is a president coming from the cradle of the revolution and a democratic system.

Economic vision

Media figure Mabrouka Khedir said that President Saïed, as is apparent from his electoral platform, has a clear economic vision that relies first of all on strengthening Tunisia’s partnership with North African and African states, with the goal of seeking out investment agreements and projects, trade and cultural promotion. Pointing to the young people surrounding the president, who gave him their trust and vote in the elections, Khedir said that no other Tunisian politician had been able to speak to youth in the same way or convince them to turn out in such high numbers as President Saïed. He skilfully managed to break the code of Tunisian youth. She concluded that the current president can guarantee the enforcement of the law and that his presence has breathed new life into Tunisian politics.

Warnings about operating in an Arab environment hostile to the revolution
Lotfi Hajji described Kaïs Saïed as a “presidential phenomenon” who was able to beat the money-backed lobbies without money, parties without a party apparatus, and a large part of the media that sought to smear him without the backing of a media institution. He also outperformed the PR and image-making companies that manufacture stars and presidents. He was victorious over all of these parties acting alone with the aid of a handful of advisors.

Hajji argued that we must look at President Saïed from two perspectives, domestic and foreign. Many of the people who voted for him, particularly youth, cared little about this constitutional division of power in Tunisia and saw him instead as a person who would fight against corruption and for justice and the rule of law. The question now, Hajji said, is whether he can follow through. That will depend on the cooperation of other powers, especially the government and parliament, which in turn depends on his prudence and the team around him.

In the wider Arab context, Hajji said that Saïed would stand out in the Arab order, especially compared to those states that have rejected the Arab revolutions and change. Hajji cautioned the president against following the path of former President Moncef Marzouki, who, seeking to be the revolutionary rights defender, cut ties with Syria and Egypt, a decision that still haunts the country today. Hajji concluded that it is important to be a dreamer and revolutionary, but equally important to be an effective president on the Arab stage.

An ethical politics

Sami Ibrahim said that what most distinguishes the new president is his attempt to forge ethical politics—that is, to link politics to ethics and moral principles at a time when it is widely believed the two realms are irreconcilable. He added that the Saïed is betting on making the values and principles in which he and his voters believe a reality. He explained that linking politics and ethics is a necessary endeavour, for without it, political despair would prevail. Discussing Saïed’s call to support the Palestinian cause, Ibrahim said that it was not merely an emotional statement; rather, with it, the president sought to affirm that the Palestinian cause is first and foremost an issue of principle. Turning to the Gulf states, their hostility to the Arab Spring, and their stance on Saïed, Ibrahim said that these states must understand that a real revolution took place in Tunisia and they must deal with the country on this basis. If they do so, their ties with Tunisia can be more rational.

The question of the government

The panel concluded its discussion by turning to the third and final topic: the nature of the coming government, obstacles to its formation, and the possible outcomes. The speakers agreed that the Tunisian political class does not want another round of parliamentary elections that would follow if no government can be formed. They therefore ruled out the prospect, speculating that a last-minute consensus would be reached.

Ahmed Idris said that the parliament would approve an Ennahda government because no one is prepared for new elections that would squander further time, effort and money.

Fathi Jarray agreed, saying that the strength of Ennahda—the winner of the most parliamentary seats—is its ability to compromise with partners and opponents alike, even to the chagrin of its electoral base. He said that Ennahda had already begun speaking with some parties and would ultimately find a solution in a coalition after making many concessions. Jarray was optimistic about the consensus government provided its ministers are chosen on the basis of qualifications and integrity and the Cabinet is able to work harmoniously as part of a national endeavour for which they will be accountable to voters. He said the most likely scenario is not a technocratic government, but a national salvation government, emphasising the importance of a strong judiciary to adjudicate the cases of corruption brought before it.

Mabrouka Khedir did not substantially disagree, although she noted that it is too early to judge the president. His first job will be to task the winning party—Ennahda—with forming a government, she said, and she does not expect any difficulty in winning parliamentary approval of the government. She also stressed the importance of a clear government program that can make tangible progress on outstanding issues.
Lutfi Hajji reiterated the hazards of foreign interference and their impact on the government, in terms of both its composition and performance. It should not be lost on the people, he said, that there is Gulf interference. There are states that support the Tunisian democratic experiment in word and deed and others that are working assiduously to thwart and obstruct it. The same is true of other regional and Western states, which publicly voice support for the democratic experiment while acting behind the signs to obstruct it and impose certain parties or social models. For this reason, Hajji hoped that the new crop of politicians would call things by their name to make them clear to the public.

Speaking of the importance of a government platform, Hajji said the government must have a clearly mapped out plan by which voters can judge them because the electorate has said, “enough ideology”. There is now the chance, Hajji said, of turning the apparent patchwork nature of the Tunisian political landscape into a positive element that can support the formation of a historical alliance that agrees and acts on a set of principles.

Sami Ibrahim concluded the panel by saying that two ways of discussing the formation of a government are apparent. One envisions the process as a contract negotiation for the division of labour and benefits. The other says, “You and your Lord go fight, we are staying here”, as if one party’s presence is conditioned on the denial of the other. For this reason, Ibrahim said, it is important to meet the people’s economic and social demands, and in order to do so, the government must not only be a salvation government, but an emergency government.