Political reform in Tunisia leads to economic growth

The Republic of Tunisia established a unitary semi-presidential democratic government after its independence from France in 1956. The country’s first half-century of sovereignty was marked by steady social progress and reasonably robust economic development. Under the reign of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled from 1987 to his ousting in the Jasmine Revolution of 2011, business-friendly reforms were enacted and the country experienced relative stability and economic progress. Nevertheless, political and social freedoms were curtailed by the administration.

The January 2011 Jasmine Revolution, which triggered the broader Arab Spring protests across North Africa and the Middle East, brought about a profound shift in the country’s political system. While the country’s transition has been remarkably successful, the effects of the revolution are still being experienced today as the country seeks to adapt itself to the challenges of multiparty politics and overcome economic hurdles.

New Constitution 

In 2014 the country adopted a new constitution, introducing greater political freedoms, establishing a free press and introducing measures to improve gender equality. Also enshrined in the constitution are the rights to form associations and political parties. The executive branch of government is made up of the president, prime minister and the Cabinet. The president – who appoints both the prime minister and cabinet members – is the head of state, while the prime minister is the head of government.

The presidential term lasts for five years, and a president can only serve a maximum of two terms in office. Tunisia’s main legislative body, the Assembly of the People’s Representatives (ARP), has 217 seats. The ARP is bicameral, comprised of the Chamber of Advisors and the Chamber of Deputies, and has the power to impeach a president by a two-thirds majority. Tunisia’s judicial system is made up of the Court of Cassation, which is based largely on French civil law, while also incorporating certain aspects of Islamic sharia law.

Elections 

In October 2011, shortly after the uprising that brought down the previous regime, Tunisia held elections for a new Constituent Assembly. Considered to be the first completely free elections in the country’s history, around 100 political parties participated, most of which had been newly created following the revolution. A total of 4.3m votes were cast, with the moderate Islamist party Al Nahda (or Ennahda) winning around 37% of votes, granting it 89 seats in the assembly. This was followed by the centre-left secular party Congress for The Republic, which garnered 26 seats and the social democratic Ettakatol which won 20.

After two years and three months of drafting, the Constituent Assembly came up with the country’s new constitution in January 2014. Under the new constitutional framework Tunisia’s first regular parliamentary and presidential elections both took place in 2014. The veteran politician, the late Beji Caid Essebsi won the runoff vote for the presidency in December of that year, securing 55.7% of the popular vote. The same year saw the country’s first regular parliamentary elections, which gave Essebsi’s secularist Nidaa Tounes party a gain of 85 seats. The winner was followed by Ennahda, which secured 69 seats. As a result of the election, Nidaa Tounes nominated Habib Essid as the country’s prime minister to lead a government which included elements from Nidaa Tounes, Afek Tounes and the Free Patriotic Union parties. It also included one Ennahda minister and other independent members of the assembly, which allowed the government to hold 166 seats.

In August 2016 Youssef Chahed became prime minister, after a vote of no confidence in Parliament forced the exit of Essid. A 43-year-old former minister of local affairs, Prime Minister Chahed has been the longest-serving prime minister in post-revolutionary Tunisia. Upon becoming head of the government, Prime Minister Chahed implemented a Cabinet reshuffle and selected 13 new ministers to join the government. Faced with significant economic difficulties following the revolution, Tunisia signed an agreement with the IMF in 2016 to secure a $2.9bn loan to be disbursed over four years. The deal included goals for the country to reduce government spending.

Striking a Balance 

These requirements have placed added pressure on the government to balance the need to reform many aspects of the economy, with the economic sacrifices closely linked to this restructuring. The unveiling of a new national budget in January 2018 led to days of protests across the country. Price increases on petrol, food products and some services have combined to make life challenging for a significant share of the Tunisian population.

Another major challenge of the country’s new democratic authorities has been the fight against corruption, with Prime Minister Chahed, launching a public campaign against organised crime and corruption in mid-2017, leading to the arrests of a handful of high-profile people. The government’s anti-corruption probe has targeted officials and civil servants in the public administration where corruption is believed to have increased following the 2011 popular uprising.

The first post-revolution municipal elections took place in May 2018, with more than 53,000 candidates taking part across the country’s 350 municipalities. The vote points to a shift in the demographic of the country’s rulers. Over 52% of candidates were below 35 years of age and 49% of those running for local office were women. The vote favoured Ennahda, which secured 32% of the mayoral posts, followed by Nidaa Tounes, which was able to win in 22% of the mayoral contests.

Notable among the results was the election of Ennahda member Souad Abderrahim as the mayor of Tunis, making her the first female mayor in the country. Nevertheless, participation in the election was low, with only 33.7% of eligible voters going to the polls. In 2018, disagreements arose between President Essebsi and Prime Minister Chahed which precipitated a split in Nidaa Tounes and the establishment of the secular party Long Live Tunisia. After Chahed was suspended from Nidaa Tounes in September 2018, he retained his position as prime minister through the support of Ennahda. In June 2019, Long Live Tunisia elected Prime Minister Chahed as party leader.

Safeguarding Stability 

One of the main challenges the country has faced in its transition towards democracy is the political instability that has emerged from parliamentary politics. Since the 2011 uprising, Tunisia has had eight governments, which led to diverging views regarding development and policy direction. In key ministries such as finance and energy, the high level of turnover has been especially disruptive for long-term development planning.

After initially resisting calls by the Tunisian General Labour Union for yet another government reshuffle in early 2018, Prime Minister Chahed eventually announced changes in his government towards the end of that year. In November 2018 the Tunisian parliament approved 10 new ministers named by Chahed, including Jewish businessman René Trabelsi, who was put in charge of the ministry of tourism, and former minister of foreign affairs under former President Ben Ali, Kamel Morjane, who was named minister of the public service. The upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections – which are scheduled for late 2019 – are likely to shed new light on the current balance of power. Although it is likely that Ennahda will continue to have a strong showing and maintain a significant number of seats, the elections appear set to strengthen the secular block.

Alongside its economic and political challenges, post-revolutionary Tunisia has also had to grapple with security issues. Insurgents along the mountainous borderlands between Tunisia and Algeria have regularly attacked government forces. In order to properly deal with the threat of terrorism, the Ministry of Defence had its budget doubled to over TD2bn ($694.7m) between 2012 and 2016. The number of soldiers serving in the Tunisian military has also increased, from under 25,000 before 2011 to roughly 45,000 soldiers by 2016.

On July 25, 2019 President Essebsi passed away due to health complications at the age of 92. Given the president’s central role in facilitating the country’s democratic transition, Prime Minister Chahed declared seven days of mourning. In accordance with the Tunisian constitution, Mohamed Ennaceur, the speaker of parliament, was declared interim president and the country’s Independent Election Commission rescheduled presidential elections for late 2019.

Outlook 

Tunisia has successfully navigated the difficulties of the post-revolutionary period by capably establishing robust democratic institutions. Furthermore, while issues of corruption and security remain a problem the current administration has displayed determination to address these challenges. Nevertheless, to ensure stability over the longer term more consistent efforts at economic reform, infrastructure upgrade and the provision of public services is needed. If Tunisia succeeds in ensuring sustainable development it may yet become not only a leader of the democratic process in the region, but also of prosperity as well.

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This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Tunisia 2019 . Explore other chapters from this report.