Tunisians are losing faith in the ballot box

The Economist 

DESPITE his best efforts, when President Beji Caid Essebsi visited Ettadhamen (“solidarity”) on January 14th, he did not engender much harmony. Protests had broken out a week earlier across Tunisia, many of them in places like Ettadhamen, a working-class suburb of Tunis, the capital. Though peaceful during the day, they turned ugly at night, with rioters burning police stations and trashing a supermarket. Hours after Mr Essebsi left Ettadhamen, riots erupted yet again, leaving the streets dotted with spent tear-gas canisters.

The unrest was sparked by a package of tax increases, affecting dozens of consumer goods, that took effect on January 1st. Fuel prices, which are heavily subsidised, were also raised. The government argues that it needs to shrink the budget deficit of 6% of GDP, and that many of the austerity measures are aimed at the rich—wine prices, for example, rose sharply. But so did the prices of basic necessities, such as bread and phone cards.

Hoping to head off further unrest, the government announced that it would spend an extra 100m dinars ($40m) on welfare payments this year. Pensions are also set to grow, along with health-care benefits for the unemployed. Poor families will receive at least a 20% increase in aid—though for many, that will mean just $13 more per month. Even the larger stipends are still below the 240 dinars that economists call a subsistence monthly wage. “It’s laughable,” says Sami Bechini, a retired civil servant. “They would need to double my pension for me to feel comfortable.”

Although the concessions failed, coercion was effective. Police arrested more than 800 people, among them bloggers and activists, and the army was deployed in some outlying areas. For now, at least, the protests have died out. Even at their peak they drew at most tens of thousands of supporters. They were a far cry from the enormous demonstrations that toppled Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the longtime dictator, in 2011. Still, the unrest is a symptom of a much deeper problem.

Seven years after the revolution, many Tunisians are losing faith in a democratic transition that was meant to bring wider prosperity. A poll by the International Republican Institute, an American pro-democracy group, found that most Tunisians think the country is going in the wrong direction (see chart). Asked whether prosperity or democracy was more important, almost two-thirds chose the former.

In interviews it is not uncommon to hear nostalgia—if not for Mr Ben Ali then for his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, who ruled for 30 years until 1987. Many invoke the memory of the bread riots in the 1980s, which were caused, like the recent protests, by a cut in subsidies linked to talks with the IMF. The riots ended when Bourguiba reversed the cut. “The virtue of dictatorship is that there’s an authority to the state. It’s bad, but it works,” says Sihem Bensedrine, who heads the national truth and dignity committee. “People think democracy equals chaos.”

Tunisia held free and fair parliamentary elections within a year of Mr Ben Ali fleeing. Ennahda, an Islamist party, won a plurality in the legislature and formed a coalition. Then it did something more important: it stepped down in 2014 after a series of political assassinations plunged the country into crisis. When Nidaa Tounes, a bloc of secular parties, placed first in the subsequent election, Ennahda joined its coalition. Though Freedom House downgraded Tunisia in its latest survey of world liberty, it is the only Arab country to be rated as “free”.

Rather than advance the democratic transition, though, political elites are stalling it. Four years after it adopted a new constitution, parliament has yet to appoint a constitutional court. Lawmakers cannot agree on which judges to name. Nor has Tunisia held local elections, originally planned for 2016 and then postponed four times. They are now tentatively scheduled for May. Nidaa Tounes fears a thumping by the better-organised Ennahda. Both parties have an eye on the national election in 2019. Yet good local governance is vital in a country with deep disparities between the impoverished interior and the comparatively prosperous coast.

Mr Essebsi and Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, act as a kind of ruling duo, with support from the powerful trade unions. Yet beneath those two ageing leaders, the political landscape is increasingly fractious. Nidaa Tounes lost its plurality in 2016, when about two dozen of its MPs broke away to form an anti-Islamist bloc. Ennahda, for its part, has upset its largely working-class voters by sitting in a government that raised taxes, lowered subsidies and froze public-sector recruitment. “It lost us votes,” says Mr Ghannouchi. “We’ve placed all our bets on an alliance with our adversaries from yesterday.”

A poorly attended by-election in December, for Tunisian expatriates in Germany, saw a blogger with no party affiliation win a seat. In polls, the most trusted politician is often neither Mr Essebsi nor Mr Ghannouchi but the young prime minister, Youssef Chahed. He was a middling member of Nidaa Tounes before he was catapulted to the premiership in 2016. Now he is working on his own political movement ahead of elections next year.

Until then, though, Mr Chahed will be the public face of painful economic reforms. Public-sector wages chew up almost 14% of GDP; inefficient state-run firms have too many workers (and not enough revenue). Both must shrink. The government needs to do a better job of selling these changes. In the short term, handouts can help to blunt some of the backlash. But eventually it needs to show progress, or wider unrest looms. “We’ve had nine governments in seven years, and the economic results have been the same with each one,” says Mr Ghannouchi.

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