Tunisia: dismantling democracy, one step at a time
Tunisia’s 17 December parliamentary election takes place under a new law that weakens political parties – and has the side effect of making it harder for women to get elected. Rather than offering a possible challenge to President Kais Saied’s increasingly authoritarian rule, the election constitutes the latest phase of the process through which he has consolidated his power. But continuing economic strife and its accompanying potential for growing social unrest may offer a bigger challenge to Saied – and could give Tunisia’s biggest trade union and the country’s international partners some potential for leverage to urge respect for democratic freedoms, if they choose to do so.
On 17 December, Tunisia will hold its first parliamentary election since President Kais Saied’s July 2021 coup. Since then he’s dismissed the previous parliament, changed the constitution to concentrate power in the presidency and installed loyalists in key positions. There’s little prospect of the election offering any kind of challenge to Saied’s continuing power.
President remakes the rules
The new constitution, written through an opaque process, was confirmed in a referendum with a low turnout, held in July on the anniversary of the coup. It swept away the checks and balances set out in the progressive and democratic constitution developed after Tunisia’s 2011 revolution.
Saied gave himself the power to appoint and suspend prime ministers and governments without parliamentary approval, and rule by decree when there is no parliament. He can declare a state of exception based on imminent danger grounds, with no court oversight. He has ultimate control over the judiciary and army. The constitution also created a second chamber of parliament, the National Council of Regions and Districts, although as yet there’s no news on how and when its members will be chosen.
As set up in the new constitution, parliament can’t stand up to the president. But just to make sure, Saied has intervened to sway the parliamentary election in his favour. In December people will vote for members of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, replacing the parliament Saied dissolved in March after it held an online session that voted to oppose the new constitution. The following month, he placed the electoral commission under his control, and then he appointed new members.
In September, Saied announced a new electoral law, comprehensively changing the voting system. The old set-up – in which parties and coalitions put up lists of candidates in large, multi-member constituencies and seats were distributed through a proportional formula – is no more. Now people will vote in single-member districts, with run-off votes if no candidate wins a majority. There will also be a smaller parliament, down from 217 to 161 seats, which will be potentially easier to manage for the president.
The requirement to stand as individual candidates rather than as part of party lists at a stroke strongly diminishes the power of political parties, threatening to throw the focus of campaigns on personalities and fragmenting parliament. The new law, which ends public financing for parties and removes limits on private donations, also makes it more likely that successful candidates will be wealthy.
It’s a setback for women too. Under the old party list system, parties were required to alternate male and female candidates. This had an instant impact: 79 women were elected to parliament in 2014 and 53 at the last election in 2019, giving Tunisia the highest female parliamentary representation in the Middle East and North Africa. Almost half of local council seats were occupied by women too. But that’s over now. Predictably, only 11.5 per cent of candidates standing under the new system are women. A parliament dominated by men can be expected.
There are new barriers to overcome, including a requirement to collect signatures that didn’t exist before. And anyone who has ever been charged with a legal violation is barred from standing, a truly concerning development given that under Saied’s rule numerous people have been jailed or faced charges for criticising him – including members of the former parliament.
An ongoing crackdown
Those targeted in Saied’s crackdown include Rached Ghannouchi, former head of the dissolved parliament and leader of the Islamist party Ennahda, which came first at the last election. He’s among several Ennahda politicians and former ministers, all the way up to ex-president Moncef Marzouki, who’ve been prosecuted on corruption, money laundering and security charges. Travel bans have been imposed to stop them fleeing from prosecution.
Even Saied’s former chief of staff Nadia Akacha, who resigned in January citing fundamental differences of opinion, was investigated by the General Prosecution Office. She had reportedly questioned Saied’s mental health and his management of the state in leaked audio recordings.
Saied has further strengthened his powers to suppress dissent. Using his ability to rule by decree in the absence of parliament, in September Saied introduced decree 54, known as the cybercrime decree. It punishes the spread of anything deemed to be ‘false news’ with jail sentences of up to 10 years. This has enabled the criminalisation of activists and social media users who criticise Saied. The draft of this law had previously not been passed by parliament due to objections by domestic and international civil society.
Previously divided political parties have come together to protest against Saied’s increasingly authoritarian rule. A coalition of opposition groups demonstrated in the capital, Tunis, in October.
There have also been protests against the new electoral law. Nine civil society organisations staged a sit-in outside the electoral authority’s headquarters in October. But Saied’s coup and subsequent centralisation of power has been enabled by widespread public disaffection with party politics. The parliament elected in 2019 was divided and many saw it as preoccupied with political squabbles rather than focused on dealing with the everyday economic problems of Tunisians, including unemployment and unaffordable prices. This meant that Saied’s changes have enjoyed a degree of popularity.
Economic anger has driven much of the public disaffection that Saied has taken advantage of, but so far all his political re-engineering has failed to address these pressing challenges.
Given the climate of public opinion, one of Tunisia’s most powerful forces, the million-member strong Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), had broadly held back from criticising Saied. Instead it focused on extracting concessions for its members through private negotiations. Saied was able to keep it in check by raising the prospect of corruption charges against its leaders. The union took no position on the referendum.
But at a protest on 3 December, the UGTT’s Secretary General, Noureddine Taboubi, took a less ambiguous stance, criticising Saied’s ‘individual rule’ and the ‘unpleasant surprises’ it offers for democracy. Taboubi denounced the forthcoming vote as being held on the basis of a constitution that lacks widespread support.
This could be a significant development. Given its ability to mobilise strikes, the UGTT may be the only force standing between Saied and unchecked power. The question is whether its leaders will now keep up their criticism, and whether Saied will try to clip their wings.
The UGTT may need to play a more dissenting role because many major parties won’t be represented in parliament. The National Salvation Front, a group of 11 political parties led by Ennahda, has said it will boycott the election. The Free Dostourian Party, another major party, has said the same.
General disaffection with the new system showed when the application deadline had to be extended until the end of October, because so few people had come forward that some districts had no candidates. Even now, the final list of approved candidates is far smaller than in previous elections and there are districts with candidates standing unopposed.
#Tunisia: Saied’s Dec 17 sham elections for legislature he can unilaterally disband=more dictatorial consolidation.— Monica Marks (@MonicaLMarks) December 4, 2022
Parties aren’t allowed. And many districts have one or no candidates. Here’s La Goulette, which had 56 lists in 2019 (before Saied’s coup) & now just 1 candidate: https://t.co/qPNxjaAeN0
President Saied may need to repair relations with the UGTT if he is to tackle Tunisia’s ailing economy. Economic anger has driven much of the public disaffection that Saied has taken advantage of, but so far all his political re-engineering has failed to address these pressing challenges.
Economic despair is driving many Tunisians to make the difficult decision to try to leave the country, taking highly dangerous routes across the Mediterranean Sea in an attempt to reach Europe. As a result, tragedies are mounting up. Over 500 people – possibly many more – have died crossing the Mediterranean in 2022 alone.
Residents of the southern city of Zarzis know this too well: a boat carrying 18 people from the city went missing in September, and people protested for weeks to call on the authorities to find it. But in October, they discovered that the government had found the bodies of the people who had been on the boat and secretly buried them in unmarked graves. The bodies were then exhumed and identified, leading to more public anger and protests.
By then, the government was basking in the international prestige of hosting the leaders’ summit of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, the international network of French-speaking countries. Protesters from Zarzis attempted to head to Djerba, where the summit was being held, but were blocked by Tunisian security forces spraying teargas.
Police use tear gas to intercept protestors from #Zarzis marching towards #Djerba, host of the @OIFrancophonie summit.— Souhail Khmira (@SKhmira) November 18, 2022
Protestors from Zarzis were planning to march towards Djerba as a protest to being "Neglected" by local Authorities#Tunisia#Protests pic.twitter.com/1KitXfCiQG
At a meeting two months after the loss of the boat, Saied finally acknowledged the need to investigate the tragedy and help the families. But at the same meeting, Saied also praised security forces for their efforts in keeping the Francophonie summit secure – the same forces that repressed the protesting families.
It was in this context that the Francophonie summit – which focused on economic cooperation between member countries – presented Saied with an opportunity not just to posture as a statesperson but also seek some much-needed funding.
French President Emmanuel Macron didn’t disappoint him: he committed a €200 million (approx. US$207 million) loan, with no strings attached. He may have been encouraged by a recent call with Saied in which, according to France’s read-out, he had vaguely indicated a plan to hold a national dialogue. But Saied denies having made such a promise. Macron’s other motivations may have been the usual preoccupations of European states when engaging in the region: a determination to limit migration and mitigate extremism.
France’s loan came days after the European Union (EU) granted Tunisia €100 million (approx. US$103.5 million). A US$1.9 billion loan has also been provisionally agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), contingent upon 43 economic changes, including many elements of the IMF’s usual neoliberal package such as the removal of subsidies on basic goods and a freeze on public sector pay. This inevitably raises fears of a further deterioration of living standards for Tunisians, since existing social welfare programmes are already failing them.
Many doubt Saied can deliver on his promises to the IMF, given the public backlash any cutbacks will bring. In September 2022 the government committed to increasing public sector pay by five per cent. The UGTT has long resisted cuts and other IMF demands such as the privatisation of public sector corporations, including by holding nationwide strikes.
The possibility may be there for the UGTT to use its economic leverage to push for a reversal of democratic decline. An alternative scenario would be ongoing economic strife that can only fuel social unrest and eventually cause those who have backed Saied to turn against him.
Need for pressure
This is the unpromising context in which Tunisia goes to the polls. The Francophonie summit was a missed opportunity for more democratic states to urge greater respect for human rights and democratic freedoms. Saied needs to face stronger international pressure, including from the EU, to start consulting on developing a path back to democracy.
Those providing funding should be prepared to call out the highly limited scope of the coming election and insist that human rights are respected. Saied should be urged to open up space for genuine social dialogue, including with groups critical of him, to develop broad consensus on the approach to be taken to improving the economy.
Without this, Saied will expect to keep getting away with his power grab, at least for now, and Tunisia will continue on its dangerous path away from democracy.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The international community should call attention to the limitation of political competition in the coming parliamentary election.
President Saied should consult widely, including with civil society and political parties, to develop a consensus-based economic plan.
The European Union should insist that the government respect democratic freedoms and human rights as a condition of providing funding to Tunisia.
Cover photo by Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters via Gallo Images