Tunisia's political stability central to economic development

 

The Republic of Tunisia established a unitary semi-presidential democratic government after its independence from France in 1956. Under the reign of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled from 1987 to his ousting in the Jasmine Revolution of 2011, political stability and a measure of economic prosperity prevailed, even while political and social freedoms were curtailed.

The new 2014 constitution allows greater press and religious freedom as well as moves towards gender equality. The executive branch is made up of the president, prime minister and the cabinet members. 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. Tunisia’s main legislative body, the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (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.

The judicial branch is made up of the Court of Cassation. The judiciary follows French civil law and some aspects of Muslim sharia law. The president chairs the judicial council and judges are appointed by presidential decree on the advice of the Supreme Judicial Council. Furthermore, the country is divided into 24 governorates for local administration.

Elections 

According to the 2014 constitution, parliamentary and presidential elections take place every five years. The president must obtain 50% of the votes in order to win in the first round, otherwise there is a second round with the top two candidates. Presidents’ terms are non-renewable. In the 2014 election, current President Beji Caid Essebsi of the secularist party Nidaa Tounes won with 55.68% of the run-off vote in the second round. Essebsi is 91, making him the oldest democratically elected head of state in the world. New presidential elections are set to take place in 2019.

Parliamentary elections were also held in 2014, being the first regular elections in the country since independence in 1956. The Nidaa Tounes party gained a plurality of votes and won 85 seats and the moderate Islamist party Al Nahda (or Ennahda) came in second place with 69 seats. On January 2015, Nidaa Tounes nominated Habib Essid as prime minister and he went on to form a unity government consisting of members of the Nidaa Tounes, Afek Tounes, Free Patriotic Union parties, one Ennahda minister and other independent politicians, through which he secured 166 seats.

In August 2016 parliament drove out Essid in a vote of no confidence, before Youssef Chahed succeeded him as prime minister. In September 2017 Chahed conducted a cabinet-wide reshuffle and renamed 13 new ministers for appointment.

In May 2018 Tunisia will hold its first municipal elections since the Arab Spring. About 5m Tunisians are eligible to vote for leaders in 350 municipalities. The elections have been postponed several times, but are seen as the last step towards full democratic transition.

Continuity 

Post-revolution Tunisia has seen seven different governments in power in seven years, each office with its own agenda, including unique sets of reforms and projects. Tunisia has had nine ministers of finance in the past seven years, and with each change there was a restart to some extent. As a result of the lack of continuity, it has been difficult for governments to carry out long-term projects and not resort to dayto-day management and short-term solutions.

The cabinet reshuffle of September 2017 was the latest major change in executive leadership. However, the government seems to be turning a corner, and when Tunisian General Labour Union (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, UGTT) leader Noureddine Taboubi publicly called for another cabinet reshuffle in February 2018, Prime Minister Chahed was very clear in his response: “There can only be serious consequences if every nine months, or even more often, we change governments. Political stability is the driving force for the success of the democratic transition process.”

Moreover, the consensual, national unity government in power does induce a certain continuity of state politics as well as a long-term vision. The Carthage Agreement – signed by the various political parties as well as the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (Union Tunisienne de l’Industrie, du Commerce et de l’Artisanat, UTICA), the Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fishing, and the UGTT – outlines the major social, economic and security challenges facing the country, and presents the country’s vision for politics. Securing political stability in Tunisia is key to ensuring economic development in the years to come.

Labour Unions & Civil Society

The president’s inclusion of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet in the signing of the Carthage agreement in July 2016 stipulates its participation in the future government as an important component of the success of the country’s transition to democracy.

The quartet is a group of four organisations – the UGTT, the UTICA, Tunisian Human Rights League and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers – that were central in the attempts to transition Tunisia to democracy in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011. Together they won the Nobel Peace prize in 2015.

In particular, the UGTT has played a historic role in Tunisian politics since it was established in 1946. The labour union was active during Tunisia’s struggle for independence from the French in the 1950s. Throughout the second half of the 20th century the UGTT used strikes to improve working conditions and influence political decisions. Today, it continues to heavily influence matters central to the government agenda such as public wage spending, privatisation of public companies and even the annual Finance Law and establishment of the government budget. The UGTT is particularly powerful in the interior of the country, where unemployment rates are especially high.

Similarly, UTICA, an employer’s organisation created in 1947, has been influential in Tunisian politics. a strong voice when it comes to deciding the country’s investment laws, monetary policy and other key economic measures. Through its representation of a number of agents of the country’s economy, many of which are small and medium-sized enterprises, UTICA is also an extra-governmental power.

Labour unions and civil society groups in Tunisia are in some cases more powerful than political parties and go beyond their classical roles to demand resolutions in the political sphere. They are likely to continue to play central roles in the future of the country.

Tackling Corruption

In September 2017 Tunisia passed Law No. 62 that pardoned former public officials accused of corruption. Many people affiliated with the Ben Ali regime who allegedly engaged in tax evasion, looted public coffers and committed other crimes have been pardoned. Although many have spoken out against the law, claiming it encourages impunity, the government argues that it is necessary to relaunch the economy, and encourage development projects suspended by the weak performance of public officials.

In May of that same year the government arrested several Tunisian businessmen for fraud in the Mains Propres, or Clean Hands, operation. However, many measures must still be taken to properly battle corruption that, although significantly improved from Ben Ali times, is still to be found in Tunisian society.

In order to address the issue the government will need to implement and enforce existing laws, beginning with the enforcement of the law requiring Tunisian officials to publicly declare their assets as well as digitalise government processes for increased transparency. If unaddressed, corruption will remain a barrier to Tunisia’s democratic consolidation.

Outlook 

As a newly re-established democracy only seven years old, Tunisia continues to navigate the complexities of establishing qualitative economic growth and development in the country.

Since the revolution, economic reforms have moved slowly in Tunisia. Successive governments have focused on the country’s political transition and have been wary of tackling unpopular reforms in the constrained economic environment, caused in part by persistent security threats across the country.

However, in order for the Tunisian democracy to succeed, it has to also deliver prosperity, as although people want to vote, they also want to be able to provide for their families. Tunisia has started undertaking difficult and complicated reforms to improve their public finances, tackle unemployment, attract more investment and help the economy grow. In particular, the country seeks to alleviate the inflated bureaucracy and heavy administrative processes.

The Tunisian government is moving to push through the destabilising effects of the transition into a democracy and in doing so will continue learning how to deal with the multiplicity of actors that play into political and economic decisions. If the country succeeds in guaranteeing its economic growth, it can serve as a flagbearer for democracy, peace and prosperity not only for others in the region, but also across the globe.

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This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Tunisia 2018. Explore other chapters from this report.