Opinion | The Future of Democracy in Tunisia

Tunisia’s hopeful transition to a democratic future faces a new challenge. Voters in the country have delivered a sharp rebuke to their political elite. In the first round of presidential elections, held on Sept. 15, candidates from establishment parties performed poorly, among them Ennahda, the conservative Islamic party with the most seats in parliament, and Tahya Tounes, or Long Live Tunisia, the party of Youssef Chahed, the current prime minister.

Instead, two political outsiders emerged on top and will enter a runoff election in October. One is a constitutional lawyer who says he has never voted before. The other owns a television station and is in jail on suspicion of tax evasion and money laundering.

This vote was not just a rejection of the current coalition government; it looks like a rejection of the way the elite has conducted politics throughout the transition. In 2011, Tunisians overthrew their authoritarian ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who died in exile in Saudi Arabia on Sept. 19. Their uprising sparked the Arab Spring, which is still reshaping political life in the Middle East. This year protests brought down authoritarian rulers in Sudan and Algeria, and in recent days protests have returned to the streets of Egypt, despite heavy repression.

Tunisia’s democratic transition appeared to benefit from pragmatism and consensus over the past eight years. The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, made up of four civil society groups, won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for successfully negotiating a way out of a grave political crisis two years earlier when the transition was close to collapse. Politicians went on to write a progressive constitution and to build an inclusive political system that gave space to both Islamists and their former adversaries from Mr. Ben Ali’s ousted regime.

Elsewhere in the region the promise of the Arab uprisings often descended into counterrevolution and violence, but Tunisia retains the promise of democracy. The presidential election has been peaceful and appears to be largely free and fair.

But there have been warning signs that this politics of consensus would prove hollow. There has been a sharp decline in public confidence in political institutions: Trust in parliament has fallen to 14 percent, and trust in political parties stands at just 9 percent, according to a recent Arab Barometer survey. That explains the low turnout for the Sept. 15 vote.

Tunisians have been making their political claims through street protests: There have been up to 10,000 protests every year since 2016. Promises of economic recovery have not been fulfilled, and both unemployment and inflation remain high.

The two leading candidates for the presidency, the constitutional lawyer, Kais Saied, and the jailed media mogul, Nabil Karoui, won just a third of the vote between them. Both will have to work hard to win new supporters before the next vote. In the Tunisian system the president is responsible only for defense, foreign affairs and national security. Whoever wins will need to build a bloc of support in the new parliament to make any substantial reforms.

Mr. Saied, a law professor at Tunis University, came out ahead in the first round and has secured the endorsement of several rivals. Although well known for his television appearances during the drafting of the Constitution, he has kept himself aloof from political life. He has no party backing, and his image as a public intellectual has been sharpened by his formal speaking manner. He ran a low-profile campaign relying not on a heavy media presence but on door-to-door electioneering with teams of young people. One exit poll suggested he won more than a third of the youth vote.

Mr. Saied opposes decriminalizing homosexuality, is against rewriting inheritance laws in favor of gender equality and would like a return to the death penalty. What may have captured the imagination of younger voters is his plan to tear up the current semi-presidential constitutional model in favor of direct democracy.

“Throughout the world the era of parties is over,” Mr. Saied argued. He proposed devolving power to elected local councils that will decide local spending priorities, with each representative held accountable by the possibility of recall elections. But to get this plan through parliament he would need a two-thirds majority to rewrite the Constitution, and that seems unlikely.

His rival, Mr. Karoui, has populist tendencies and is widely known through his ownership of Nessma TV, which has done much to publicize the work of his anti-poverty charity. Mr. Karoui was once closely involved with Nidaa Tounes, or the Call of Tunisia, the party that represented the interests of the former political and business elite and was founded by Beji Caid Essebsi, the Tunisian president whose death in July brought about this election.

But Mr. Karoui drew way from Nidaa Tounes and began to forge his own political profile, arguing for a more powerful presidency. The new party he set up was ahead in the last pre-election polls. His presidential campaign was allowed to continue after his arrest in August, but he has complained repeatedly that he has not been given a fair chance and that his arrest was a political move by Prime Minister Chahed, who was knocked out in the first round of the presidential election.

If Mr. Karoui loses the presidential election and challenges the result, or if he wins and is later convicted, it would trigger a serious crisis. It would place the election commission under enormous pressure, especially when the long-awaited constitutional court, which is supposed to decide such questions, is yet to be established.

Mr. Karoui’s party, Qalb Tounes, may be one of the strongest parties in the new parliament due to be elected on Oct. 6, along with the conservative Islamic party Ennahda, whose candidate came in third in the presidential election on Sunday. The two parties are unlikely allies, but each will have to build a broad coalition of support.

Many Tunisians hope that this public rejection of the political elite will reset the system and revive the promises of the 2011 uprising for accountable, legitimate government and wider economic opportunities for all.

But the risk is a slide toward authoritarian tendencies. Already there have been some disappointing moments, including a law passed by parliament that undermined the Truth and Dignity Commission’s transitional justice process by offering an amnesty to public officials accused of historic corruption.

Another low turnout is likely in the coming parliamentary elections, and established parties are unlikely to dominate. A fragmented parliament may not be able to restrain an ambitious president. And it may struggle once again to agree on candidates for the constitutional court, which ought to be the final guarantor of Tunisia’s political transition.

Rory McCarthy is an assistant professor at Durham University and the author of “Inside Tunisia’s al-Nahda: Between Politics and Preaching.”

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