The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed comments on the MENA region’s most significant issues and trends. Today, we place the spotlight upon Tunisia’s upcoming legislative elections, focusing on the country’s current domestic affairs and foreign relations.
On December 17, Tunisians will head to the polls and elect the lower house of parliament, the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP). These are the first legislative elections since President Kais Saïed suspended and later dissolved the parliament on July 25, 2021, and March 30, 2022, respectively. The vote is meant to be the culmination of the roadmap unveiled by the President in December 2021, coming soon after the adoption by referendum of the controversial new constitution on July 25, 2022. The national charter has changed the country’s political structure from one where power was shared between parliament and the President to a system where the head of state now has significant control over the legislative branch with fewer checks and balances. Following the amendments to the 2014 electoral law introduced by Saïed in mid-September, the 161 members of parliament (instead of the previous 217) will be elected directly through a two-round majoritarian system. Under the new regulations, voters will choose candidates for the ARP as individuals rather than from a single-party list, as was the case in the past. While political parties will be allowed to run in the elections, the electoral law will no longer afford them the privileged position previously enjoyed under the former list-based system. In fact, the new rules have been heavily criticized by several political entities, which have called for a boycott of the election, as they consider these rules a means to exclude them from public life and from the decision-making process. Aside from the boycott, a dull atmosphere has shrouded the electoral campaign, and, given the general apathy growing towards politics, a low turnout seems likely. As events unfold, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is expected to greenlight a $1.9bn four-year programme in the next few weeks after a staff-level agreement was reached in October with the Tunisian authorities. Though this represents a significant step forward for the country, which continues to face a socioeconomic and financial crisis, the deal alone might not be enough to pull Tunisia out of its current predicament without the labour union UGTT’s backing of the reform package. In regard to foreign policy, the election of a new parliament devoid of its prerogatives will not entail any significant change to Tunisia’s diplomacy with its northern African neighbours.
Tunisia’s parliamentary elections: a non-event
“Tunisia’s parliamentary elections will hold little consequence, as the regime has moved towards a presidential system where the parliament’s role is more advisory than legislative. The electoral campaign has been unusually dull, and few people seem aware that elections are even taking place; instead, the Qatar World Cup has been receiving all the attention. As a result, turnout will probably be low. Nonetheless, the establishment of this new parliament will add stability to the country’s political institutions: Tunisia has been ruled by the President and his government without a parliament since July 2021, which is indeed a political oddity. A new political configuration is also emerging: the last year and a half has diminished the role of political parties, whilst empowering some previously marginalized groups. Additionally, the President’s popularity far outreaches that of even his closest opponents’. However, as the economic situation continues to deteriorate, there are few optimistic prospects for the future.”
Youssef Cherif, Director, Columbia Global Centres, Tunis
After the constitutional referendum, Saïed’s “moving electoral base” will be put to the test again
“The results of the July 25, 2022, referendum highlight a paradoxical situation that reveals a complex political landscape. Although the voter turnout was low, there was a landslide victory for the “yes” vote. Indeed, around 94% voted for the President’s objective to “correct the course of the revolution”. This vote was hence more than a show of approval for the content of the new constitution because the text was never discussed nor put to public debate. Most Tunisians, either out of disinterest, lack of time, or even distaste for all things political, know nothing about the new national charter except for some sketchy readings here and there, especially on social media. The referendum is rather meant as a vote on the person of the President, and it demonstrates that Kais Saïed is still on the winning side. The number of 2.6 million Tunisians voting “yes” is highly significant given that the President himself was voted in by around 2.8 million in the runoff election of 2019. That is an indicator that he has managed to keep his base in place in terms of number, although probably not in terms of the nature of the electorate. I call this “a moving base”, which will again be tested in the upcoming December 17 parliamentary election.”
Emna Ben Arab, Assistant Professor, University of Sfax
Has Ennahda reached the end of the line?
“President Kais Saïed’s seizure of power on July 25, 2021, has dealt a severe blow to the Islamist party Ennahda. Ever since, Saïed has gradually degraded and sidelined this political group (which held a majority in the dissolved parliament), capitalizing upon the widespread anger increasingly felt by the Tunisian people towards Ennahda’s handling of the country’s governance and economy in the aftermath of the 2010-2011 uprisings. After ten years at the centre stage of the country’s political dynamics, Ennahda has thus shifted from representing the bulwark against President Ben Ali’s ancien régime to being associated with a corrupted and flawed establishment incapable of grappling with the country’s socioeconomic predicament in the post-revolution era. Besides, since July 25, 2021, Saïed has launched a widespread campaign against the opposition – including arrests, travel bans and asset freezes – for alleged crimes of corruption, money laundering and support for terrorist activities, which has targeted, among others, several prominent members of the Ennahda party. Alongside other major opposition political groups and movements reunited under the anti-Saïed National Salvation Front, the Islamist group rejected the July 2022 constitutional referendum and announced its boycott of the upcoming elections. In a context in which Ennahda will be out of the political arena, it remains to be seen if, and how, the party will be able (or willing) to rethink itself and play a role in Saïed’s Tunisia.”
Lorenzo Fruganti, Research Assistant, ISPI
The deal with the IMF might not be enough to get Tunisia out of troubles
“The Tunisian government is doing very little to address the current economic crisis. President Saïed is somewhat naively counting on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) deal to help unlock financing from the international community that has been on hold since his authoritarian takeover in July 2021. Thus far, few donors appear willing to come to Tunisia’s rescue. Simultaneously, the Tunisian people are growing frustrated with Saïed’s lack of economic progress, while an increasing number of private sector companies are closing up shop and heading to calmer waters. Against this backdrop, the staff-level agreement procured with the IMF on a $1.9 billion loan over four years is expected to be voted on by the organisation’s executive board early next year. The deal would require Tunisia to address several longstanding issues, including reforming state-owned enterprises, broadening the tax base, addressing subsidies, bringing the public sector wage bill under control, and increasing cash transfers to aid the most vulnerable Tunisians. Many of these reforms are non-starters for the main labour union, the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), which has grown increasingly vocal in its criticism of Saïed’s actions.”
Sarah Yerkes, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Middle East Programme
Tunisia’s relations with its neighbours: business as usual
“Kais Saïed’s project since his authoritarian power grab in July 2021 is to consolidate a one-man rule. By neutralising institutional mechanisms of checks and balances, the Tunisian President desires to obtain complete control over all domains, including foreign relations. The election of a toothless parliament subservient to the President will be inconsequential in the foreign policy decision-making process — as in many others. Tunisia’s relations with its Maghrebi neighbours will continue to be conditioned by the country’s needs for financing amid deepening economic and social crises, securing enough energy supplies, whilst seeking external support for Kais Saïed’s plans at home. In recent times, Tunisia’s relations with its Maghrebi neighbours have been deeply impacted by regional rivalries and heightened tensions between Morocco and Algeria. Rabat has accused Tunis of siding with Algiers’ positions on the Western Sahara conflict. Tunisia also seeks support for its defence and security, considering the challenges that neighbouring Libya poses. In such a context, Algerians have much more to offer than the Moroccans. Overall, as long as Kais Saïed is able to keep his personalist project afloat, Tunisia’s foreign policy towards its Maghrebi neighbours will follow the same path already seen since July 2021— with or without a new parliament.”
Haizam Amirah-Fernández, Senior Analyst, Elcano Royal Institute
On migration, EU proposals to establish hotspots in Tunisia show how governments continue to work in crisis mode
“So far this year, close to 18,000 Tunisians arrived irregularly to Italy by the sea – the highest number in a decade. European governments looking at Tunisia today seem to be fixated on this number and this number alone. Yet, the greatly overlooked current political transition within the country might be acting as a “push factor”, increasing pressures to leave Tunisia on a population that has already gone through the twin crises of the Covid-19 pandemic (bringing tourism to near zero for over a year) and the current Ukraine-related food and energy crisis. In this regard, EU discussions asking the Tunisian government to establish “hotspots” to disembark irregular migrants waiting for their asylum application to be processed (or returned to their countries of origin) appear misplaced. Already proposed and rejected in 2018, they risk inflaming an already fragile domestic political situation rather than contributing to stabilizing the country and, in this way, bringing down irregular emigration.”
Matteo Villa, Senior Research Fellow, ISPI