The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tunisian elections bring hope in uncertain times

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It’s a new day (again) in Tunisia. On Sunday Tunisians headed to the polls to vote in the second, countrywide elections since former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali left power in 2011.

The first elections were filled with excitement; the world watched intensely, and citizens – many unpracticed but euphoric – waited patiently for hours to cast their ballots. They were the first assembly elections in the Arab world after the popular overthrow of a longstanding dictator – ever. No one was sure who would come out on top (although the moderate Islamist Ennahda party was heavily favored), and it was unclear what the future would hold. But it was a moment to remember.

This year, the enthusiasm from both the international and local communities in the lead-up to elections has waned. The world’s attention now focuses on civil wars in Syria and Libya, the spread of the Islamic State and concerns over insecurity and instability. Inside Tunisia, too, the mood had shifted from optimism to concern. Tunisians have seen their economy worsen, inequalities persist and frustrations mount.

Nevertheless, Sunday’s elections were enormously significant precisely because they were seemingly uneventful. The turnout was unexpectedly high, reaching over 60 percent of registered voters. Voting was peaceful, and as strong turnout figures came in, Tunisians were exuberant. Perhaps most important, the elections saw peaceful turnover of power. Nidaa Tunis, a party that emerged after uprisings against the Ennahda-led government, emerged the winner, and Ennahda conceded defeat. Now, negotiations over the Cabinet will begin, with all the usual haggling. In stark contrast to experiences in Egypt or Libya, Tunisia’s elections are “politics as normal.”

This is not to say that Tunisians are satisfied. A Transitional Governance Project (TGP) poll conducted in June in conjunction with the Center for Maghreb Studies (CEMAT), with funding from the United Nations Democracy Fund, found that 48 percent of Tunisians believed that they were worse off than they were before 2011. Moreover, Tunisians are disillusioned with parties, elections and politicians. Again, surveys are telling: 75 percent of respondents did not trust parties, and only 54 percent planned to vote (down from 82 percent in 2012). So too, the percentage of respondents who believed that democracy is the best form of government has decreased – from 78 percent in 2012 to 59 percent. This is not surprising. Many Tunisians viewed the most important characteristic of democracy in economic terms, with 27 percent of respondents in 2014 identifying basic necessities as the most important element of democracy. When economic improvement does not accompany transitions, many lose faith in democracy. The more politically engaged also worry, fearing deadlock, instability and yet another political crisis.

This may not seem surprising, as parties often draw from different support bases. But, it is a change. In 2011, supporters of Ennahda spanned a large spectrum of voters. They tended to be religious, but they had very diverse views on the role of religion in the state, and the state in the economy. In 2011, when voters turned out to the polls, they had a vague understanding of the issues at hand. Tunisians across the spectrum looked to Ennahda as the party that “deserved” to have power and could most effectively counter the old regime. These sentiments have disappeared. Indeed, Ennahda has the largest disapproval rating of any party, with the TGP polls finding that 60 percent of respondents had negative attitudes toward the party.

The path ahead is challenging and success by no means assured, but today, it seems that Tunisia is up to the challenge. The past three years witnessed ineffective governments, political assassinations, strikes, demonstrations and finally the expulsion of the Ennahda-led coalition, referred to as the Troika. Yet, it also saw a constitution finalized in January approved by more than 90 percent of the deputies and a technocratic government that maintained popular support as it prepared for elections.

A distinct political scene is emerging in Tunisia. Citizens frustrated with democracy, divided over political parties and engaging in contests over interests are part and parcel of democratic contestation. Far from something to be decried as the end of consensus, or a reason for pessimism, it should be recognized as growing pains for a new democratic policy. In Tunisia, politics is increasingly “politics as usual,” and that’s a good thing. Tunisia’s nascent democratic process stands as a beacon of hope in an uncertain region.

Lindsay Benstead is an assistant professor of political science in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University. Ellen Lust is a professor of political science and founding director of the Program on Governance and Local Development at Yale University, and nonresident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington, D.C. Dhafer Malouche is an associate professor at the University of Carthage. Jakob Wichmann is the founding partner of JMW Consulting. Details of the public opinion polls and questions referenced here can be found in a longer version posted at the Transitional Governance Project.