international analysis and commentary

Tunisia’s vote: economic woes and security concerns


After the fall of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and his regime, which ruled the country for the previous 23 years, a Constituent Assembly election was held in Tunisia in October 2011. The uncontested winner of the election was Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, which managed to obtain about 37% of the votes. Since then, Ennahda’s leader, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, has stressed the moderate and reformist nature of the party, likening its moderate Islamist identity to Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP): “In Turkey and Tunisia there was the same movement of reconciliation between Islam and modernity and we are the descendants of this movement,” Al-Ghannouchi claimed in late 2011.

Tunisia’s post-revolutionary political spectrum firmly evolved along the secularist/Islamist divide, albeit partisan nuances exist within both sides. The secular front is currently led by Beji Caid Essebsi, who in 2012 founded Nida Tunis, a political bloc that brings together secular leftists as well as political figures formerly affiliated with Ben Ali. Tunisia is approaching a delicate phase in its democratic transition. The next round of parliamentary elections, to be held on October 26th, will soon be followed by presidential elections, scheduled for November 23rd. Together, the elections will be a litmus test for the stability of both post-revolutionary institutions and the country’s new political configuration.

Despite the opposition’s concerns, Ennahda has often proved its moderate credentials. When political polarization was putting the democratic transition at risk, it decided to take a step back: in December 2013, the party opted for supporting a technocratic government, after political tensions caused by frictions with the opposition over the constitutional draft were exacerbated by the assassination of two political figures belonging to the secular front, bringing the Constitutent Assembly’s works to a deadlock.

Ennahda’s limited ability to improve the economy during its time in power is likely to be a key factor influencing Tunisia’s decision at the ballot box. The nation’s economy is still significantly suffering from Ben Ali’s legacy. Run for decades as a “captured state”, Tunisia suffered from endemic levels of cronyism and by a regulatory system tailored around the needs of regime-controlled companies: the 220 firms confiscated from Ben Ali after his overthrow accounted for 1% of national manpower, but earned more than 21% of all private sector profits. After the revolution, the “spoils system” put into place by Ennahda boosted loyalty to the new ruling elite, but the move came at the expense of an already ineffective and weak bureacratic structure. In 2013 alone, the party recruited about 6,000 new civil servants on the basis of their political allegiance to Ennahda. Today, Tunisia’s economic landscape shows how the transition to a new economic model has yet to be achieved. Productivity in the manufactruing and agricultural sectors is low, and the unemployment rate remains around 16%, with peaks of 38% for the age range between 14 and 25, and of 26% for women. The World Bank’s 2014 Logistics Performance Index (LPI) registered a sharp decline in Tunisian logistic capacities: the country now ranks 110th out of 160 countries (it was 41st out of 155 countries in 2012), showing a growing gap in Tunisia’s trading performance both at the domestic and international level. The external sector’s performance remains poor, due to the Eurozone’s own problems and the existence of significant trade barriers that characterize what essentially remains a protectionist economic system. Moreover, the social and economic clevage between the industrialized and tourism-oriented coastal regions on one side, and rural inland areas on the other, remains sizeable and is one of the main structural problems of Tunisia. With elections coming up, this factor assumes even more importance: while the coast has traditionally nurtured a secular electorate, Ennahda’s main constituency comes from the interior regions, where economy and infrastructure are still underdeveloped.

Together with the lack of decisive economic progress, the country’s volatile security environment played a key role in keeping popular trust towards Tunisian institutions particularly low. Violence in neighboring Libya has been impacting Tunisia’s economy significantly. Contraband has been consistently on the rise, and institutions are struggling to cope with the inflows of migrants and refugees from Libya. This, in turn, had a negative impact on Tunisian tourism, which has traditionally been a main source of income and employment. The main threat to domestic security, however, comes from the re-emergence of Salafist groups. Under Ben Ali, the country presented itself as a bastion against extremism in the region, winning American and European sympathies and having a de facto free hand in tackling religious radicalism.

During the 2011 revolution, a large number of prisoners incarcerated during Ben Ali’s regime for being Islamic radicals were freed. This led to the foundation of Ansar al-Sharia, a group whose ideological and operational features resemble, for the most part, those of Al Qaeda. Ansar al-Sharia immediately rose as a political challenger to Ennahda, as it appealed to the party’s most conservative constituency. The attack against the American embassy in September 2012 and the assassination of two leading political figures of the secular bloc in February and June 2013 highlighted the existence of a rising security problem, which soon turned into the widespread perception that Ennahda was either unable to maintan law and order in the country or unwilling to do so, turning a blind eye to the rise of Islamist violence. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has also established its presence in the Chaambi mountains, along the border with Algeria. An AQIM cell led by Lokman Abu Sakhr, an Algerian jihadi who, since early 2014, has taken control of Ansar al-Sharia, has become increasingly active. In July 2014, it carried a major attack against the Tunisian armed forces, killing 14 soldiers. The attack, which shook Tunisia’s public opinion, also fueled scepticism towards state institutions’ ability to develop a strategy that would guarantee effective domestic and border security.

Recent polls have consistently shown a potential (albeit marginal) voting preference for Nida Tunis over Ghannouchi’s party. The vast majority of Tunisian voters, however, still prefer to define themselves as “undecided”. The presidential election still manages to spark some enthusiasm, but disappointment towards what Ennahda’s supporters perceived as a poor performance while the party was in office, together with the feeling that Nida Tunis might bring the “old guard” back into politics seem to have discouraged a large share of population from voting. Ultimately, the upcoming elections will determine whether the “democratic revolution” that inspired a whole region a few years ago is still alive and kicking, and whether its leaders are willing and able to further consolidate its achievements.