Tunisia’s Economic Crisis and What It Means for Democracy

  • Rachel Baranowski

Seven years after ousting former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia is once again at a critical juncture.

The government has made progress stabilizing the economy and addressing corruption but have fallen short on their outcomes. Tunisia has been successful in making a meaningful transition to democracy, despite being in a more unstable region. However, the lack of economic growth has perpetuated Tunisia’s vulnerability. Being a beacon of hope for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa region, Tunisia’s success in a democratic transition is crucial for newly aspiring nations wanting to make a transition and for the United States. America’s influence in the world as a prosperous democracy that promotes freedom and liberty for all is dependent upon its partners and allies who share those same interests. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy embraces new partners and allies who want to become democratic states and improve the lives of their people. Having “stable, prosperous and friendly states enhances American security and boosts U.S. economic opportunities.” Having limited allies in the Middle East and North Africa region, Tunisia offers the United States an opportunity to form a stronger alliance with a nation that embraces American ideals of having a free democratic system. The success of Tunisia’s democratic transition is important for the flourishment of their people, the region and U.S. security.

Polling from the International Republican Institute (IRI) shows that 42 percent of Tunisians identify the economic crisis to be the country’s single biggest problem. According to the African Development Bank Group, from 2015-2016, Tunisia’s economic growth stagnated at one percent and in 2017 grew at only 2.2 percent. Tunisia is struggling to advance beyond the low-skill, low-wage economy—a concern since the late 1990’s due to the former government’s state-led economic policies.

Tunisians have been starving for economic growth and are becoming restless and discouraged by the government’s lack of leadership in solving these issues. The struggle for democracy is exacerbated by citizens’ economic woes of increasing taxes and unemployment. For democracy to flourish in Tunisia, citizens must have trust in their government and institutions. Democratic institutions must prove to be effective and credible for citizens to trust them. Since 2012, there has been a consistent increase in the percent of Tunisians who find that the country is going in the wrong direction.  In the 2012 poll, 30 percent of Tunisians believed the country was headed in the wrong direction compared to IRI’s most recent poll in 2017, which found 83 percent of Tunisians think the country is going in the wrong direction and majority of citizens believe that parliament and ministries are doing nothing for them.  

Democratic practices are consolidating in Tunisia but can be reversed if citizens do not believe their government or political parties are capable of working for them, as exemplified by popular, nationwide protests over government austerity measures in January. The need for effective policies is dire, and while Tunisians are hopeful for a better economic future, many of them are unsure of when that will be. Seven years after the revolution, the current government has neglected to make substantive reforms to Tunisia’s economy. The lack of economic reform has weighed heavily on Tunisians, which is evident in the current protests happening in the country.

Despite the lack of economic growth and pessimism for the national government, Tunisians find voting in government elections to be very important. When asked whether it is important for the upcoming municipal elections to be held as planned in March 2018 (elections are now scheduled for May 2018), 63 percent of Tunisians said it was very important. While Tunisians are desperate for economic prosperity, they still believe in the democratic process and are invested in participating in the upcoming elections.

The government must decide whether municipal and regional council elections should occur before or after the adoption of a Code on Local Authorities, the process of political decentralization mandated by the 2014 constitution. The decentralization mandate will empower local governments with new responsibilities and the autonomy to execute their new duties. In addition to defining the roles and responsibilities of local authorities, it will determine how financially independent the municipal and regional councils will be. While it is expected for the law to be adopted in February of this year, it is unclear whether that will happen. Holding elections before the adoption of the Code on Local Authorities could lead to confusion among voters and regional government since neither would know what is expected and what their responsibilities would entail. Holding elections after the adoption of the law will lead to further delays in elections and make people feel as if the ruling parties care more about staying in power than the democratic process. It is crucial for the government to act on the adoption of decentralization now to mitigate further delays in local elections. Simultaneously, political parties need to start developing strong party platforms to keep Tunisians feeling engaged and their democracy stabilized. When choosing a political party to support, 49 percent of Tunisians, representing a plurality of respondents, believed having a clear party platform to be much more important than a strong political leader.

The importance of strong and effective policy development is critical for the survival of Tunisia’s democracy as well as for a path forward toward economic growth. The Tunisian government must acknowledge the youth in their policy development, considering 81 percent of Tunisians believe that politicians do not pay attention to the needs and ideas of young people. Democracy thrives when there is an informed electorate. If political parties do not have a clear policy platform then it is makes it extremely difficult for Tunisians to be informed if they do not know what each party is promoting. It is also just as important for political parties to communicate and inform citizens about their policies once they are developed.

Tunisians have waited seven years after the revolution for a say in the decision-making process and economic prosperity and are growing frustrated over the lack of progress. The government must act on adopting and implementing decentralization to promote economic growth and democracy in local elections. In addition, political parties need to create concise policies that will lead to effective economic growth and prosperity for all Tunisians. Once these issues are addressed, democratic institutions in Tunisia will become more credible and Tunisia can take further steps toward economic prosperity for all. 

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