Béji Caïd Essebsi’s victory in the first post-revolutionary presidential election in Tunisia has been met with international approval largely because of his “secular” – read: non-Islamist – aura. Especially when compared with the other countries of the Arab Spring, Tunisia should indeed celebrate having held successful parliamentary and presidential elections. Perhaps most importantly, the outcomes were accepted by the losing candidates, a significant step toward the stabilization of democracy in the country.
Yet, for all the political progress that has been made, Tunisia’s economic transition has hardly begun, and political disillusionment of large parts of the population remains a major issue. The victory of Essebsi and his party, Nidaa Tounes, has to be understood in the context of the latter and seems likely to pose a major obstacle to the advancement of the former. Three points are especially worth noting:
1) One of the two factors making possible Nidaa Tounes/Essebsi’s victories was the decrease in the overall number of voters.
For the first free Tunisian elections in 2011 for its Constitutive Assembly 4,308,888 voters turned out. The legislative elections in 2014 had 3,579,256 voters, 729,632 fewer. Note how close in size this figure is to the 554,286 voters the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha lost while – mostly – in government between these two elections. The first and second rounds of the 2014 presidential elections had 3,339,666 and 3,189,672 participants, respectively. Real voter turnout – not the participation rates published by the ISIE and calculated based on the 8,289,924 eligible voter figure from 2011 – went from 51.9 percent in 2011 to 43.2 percent, 40,3 percent, and 38.5 percent, respectively, in 2014.
While Nidaa Tounes presenting a unified front and sapping up the whole spectrum of the anti-Islamist vote was an obvious necessity for their (and Essebsi’s) victory, it would thus not have been sufficient on its own. Without the disillusioned nonvoting of hundreds of thousands of former – especially Ennahdha – voters, Nidaa Tounes would have likely have finished second.
2) Neither Nidaa Tounes nor Essebsi received much of its electoral support from the revolutionaries.
The Tunisian revolution had its origin in the disfavored interior. It was initiated and sustained in the face of a massive security crackdown in late 2010 by the un- or underemployed youths of the region before finding its denouement in the capital in early 2011.
Yet, Nidaa Tounes/Essebsi’s support is especially strong in the richer coastal regions. Both the South and many of the interior regions in the middle of the country had relative majorities for Marzouki or other candidates in the first round of the presidential elections for example. These regions also showed much less support for Nidaa Tounes during the legislative elections. With youth participation in general rather low in all three elections, Nidaa Tounes and its 88-year-old candidate were likely voted into office by a disproportionate number of older people.
In short, the majority that supported Nidaa Tounes/Essebsi in these elections consists disproportionately of the more economically established older people of the coastal regions who had little – if anything – to do with the revolution. Theirs is a nonrevolutionary majority in the sense that many of its supporters clamor for a return to the supposed political and economic stability as well as security of the pre-revolutionary days. Doubts about this new majority’s commitment to the democratic transition process and issues such as transition justice persist (see here, here, or here).
3) The big question: To what extent will Nidaa Tounes reform the economy against the interest of its own constituency?
The World Bank has published an insightful, self-critical report of the Tunisian economy during the Ben Ali years and ever since. This report underlines the transitional government’s arguably biggest failure, namely that “the economic system that existed under Ben Ali has not been changed significantly.” It is an open question whether this was due to incompetence on the part of Ennahdha and its coalition partners or entrenched opposition in administrative and business circles against these changes.
Either way, it is up to the to-be-established government and the president to undertake these “critical reforms.” The situation of the deprived interior regions as well as of the mass of unemployed young people will not ameliorate if the Tunisian economy is not alleviated of some of its rigidities. Concurrently, the social system needs to be refurbished to move away from mainly subsidizing large swaths of the middle class.
Yet, as tentatively shown above, Nidaa Tounes/Essebsi’s electorate is made up of exactly that urban, coastal middle class, which still benefits from subsidy and regulatory rent system of the Ben Ali era. It is far from certain that Essebsi, an 88-year-old stalwart of post-independence Tunisian politics, and his party will have the – suicidal? – political courage to implement the drastic and sudden reforms the World Bank deems necessary in favor of those Tunisians and regions who did not vote for them. Yet, without those reforms the difficult economic situation of far too many Tunisians will not change, contributing to the populace’s political disillusionment as well as the overall sociopolitically volatile climate.