The recent monumental parliamentary election for Tunisian President Kais Saied, who was seeking legitimacy, ended in a flop, with only about 1 million Tunisians — out of 9 million eligible voters — turning up at the polls. The Dec. 17 vote was supposedly the first real attempt to shape Tunisia’s political future following the decimation of the country’s fledgling post-2011 institutions, culminating in the adoption of a new “constitution.”
However, Tunisians responded with a halting silence. As a result, calls are mounting at home and abroad for a new reset and reinvigoration of Tunisia’s troubled democratization.
The opposition — initially disempowered by the suspension and subsequent dissolution of the parliament last year and now under an unrelenting siege — was quick to jump on the abysmal turnout. Trade unions, watchdogs, political parties and even civil society organizations appear united in calling for boycotts, demonstrations and other expressions of public furor.
It is far too early, however, to determine whether the Tunisian public’s resounding rejection will lead a perpetually fragmented opposition to end its rifts simply on the basis of an equal disdain for Saied. After all, Saied’s ascendancy was not without the consent, tacit or otherwise, of a cadre of influential actors that imagined future prospects in Saied’s vision and assessed it as a credible alternative to the gridlock that prevailed at the time.
Additionally, any coalition of shared interests that emerges in the coming weeks would be wise to not overestimate its influence or misread a heavily disaffected Tunisian public that chose to vote with its feet only two weeks ago.
Tunisians have not suddenly developed a nostalgia for gridlocked legislatures compromised by corruption and a penchant for petty ideological squabbles rather than tending to the public’s welfare.
Instead, most Tunisians are more preoccupied with queuing up for food, fuel and medicine as the still smoldering embers of COVID-19, a war in Europe and a sputtering global economy have emptied store shelves amid rising inflation. Meanwhile, nearly half of Tunisian youths — roughly 30 percent of Tunisia’s total population and just over 40 percent of its labor force — are jobless, creating even more socioeconomic and political challenges as the continued malaise rapidly diminishes their prospects.
Simply put, if the opposition opts to mount a challenge backed by popular consent, any proposed alternative must prioritize delivering long-overdue economic relief instead of simply changing the guard and returning to business as usual. Unfortunately, the road to such an eventuality is fraught with challenges, including from within the opposition itself.
Take, for instance, the highly touted bailout by the International Monetary Fund aimed at temporarily easing Tunisia’s woes ahead of major reforms and relevant fiscal adjustments. First, the $1.9 billion package over a four-year period is not nearly enough to undo the damage of the underlying fragilities hampering Tunisia’s economic recovery, exacerbated by its rising debt.
Second, to even receive that funding, Tunisia must commit to very painful yet necessary reforms that will disproportionately impact its poorer, more vulnerable demographics.
Third, the country’s largest union, the Tunisian General Labor Union, has sworn to resist any moves to reduce subsidies, as well as civil sector job and pay cuts — going as far as calling for strikes and demonstrations to dissuade the government from acquiescing to IMF-mandated austerity.
Furthermore, assuming the Tunisian elites arrive at some acceptable compromise and embark on reforms that would require massive buy-in and public consent (which is very, very unlikely), the past eight years have been especially woeful for the Tunisian public, resulting in a massive trust deficit between the governors and the governed. Thus, as time passes, articulating the best-laid plans or actionable proposals will do little to galvanize a public that has tuned out politically.
Before we can even consider such prospects, however, the opposition has to address its own culpability for Tunisia’s worsening socioeconomic struggles, corruption and paralysis. It is also impossible to sidestep the men in uniform and rank-and-file bureaucrats that insist on remaining apolitical.
The key to restoring Tunisia’s democratic aspirations now mostly lies in solving its economic woes, which have sent many of the country’s 14 million people scrambling after basic necessities, while the most daring head to the boats in the hope of reaching European shores. “Politics” has become a painfully expensive indulgence that average Tunisians are simply no longer interested in.
What lies ahead for Tunisia, be it economically or in its politics, is an eventuality that has become quite familiar in this part of the world.
Meanwhile, average Tunisians keep paying a steep price. And, to add insult to injury, solving the economic crisis will just inflict even more pain.
The result? A country — once promising — now adrift, subject to the whims and machinations of quarrelsome elites.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Strategic Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell
This article originally appeared in Arab News