Tunisia is facing a massive constitutional crisis that is threatening its democracy—simultaneously the most competitive in the Arab world and deeply disappointing to many of its citizens.

Police officers stand guard outside the parliament building in Tunis, Tunisia, two days after President Kais Saied sacked the prime minister and froze parliament. July 27, 2021. Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

On July 25, 2021, President Kais Saied invoked Article 80, the emergency clause in the constitution, when he sacked the prime minister, froze the activities of parliament for at least 30 days and declared himself the attorney general. In doing so, Saied, a constitutional lawyer who depicts himself as a law-and-order man, departed from the spirit and letter of the constitution. There is evidence contradicting Saied’s claim that he consulted the prime minister and president of the legislature, as required by Article 80. Although the article calls for the legislature to remain in session during its invocation, Saied instead locked the legislators out, arguing that the body itself constituted the existential threat that required his action. He also claimed powers difficult to find in the constitution, including issuing decrees, becoming the head of the public prosecutor’s office and stripping legislators of immunity. Although Saied’s initial announcement raised the possibility that the president would restrict this exceptional period to 30 days, there is little indication that he will do so given that he has neither appointed a prime minister nor laid out a roadmap as civil society organizations pressed him to do.

Saied’s actions did not appear out of nowhere. Tunisia has experienced a number of social, economic and political crises since embarking on an uncertain transition from authoritarian rule more than ten years ago. Even before the terrible toll exacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the country experienced high inflation, stagnant growth, pervasive unemployment and a perceived decline in public services. Last year, GDP contracted by nearly 10 percent. The country is currently experiencing the worst COVID-19 outbreak in Africa and prior to July 25 the state appeared feckless in its efforts to vaccinate the population and care for the sick. At the same time, the country’s leaders appeared to be locked in a turf war for control of state institutions. As far back as last December, high-profile politicians began publicly pushing Saied to invoke the emergency clause. On July 25, many Tunisians took to the streets in protest against the government, the legislature and the Islamist party Ennahda. Saied made his move that evening.

Even before the terrible toll exacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the country experienced high inflation, stagnant growth, pervasive unemployment and a perceived decline in public services. 

As Tunisian political commentator Habib M. Sayah suggested in an illuminating Twitter thread, Saied’s actions are not a conventional coup in which dissent and protest are violently repressed—at least not yet. Tunisians are well aware of the importance of their hard-won civic and political liberties and might engage in protest if Saied curbs them. And Saied may not need to resort to repression since he entered office with widespread support. Although it is difficult to accurately gauge approval for his move during an uncertain time, it appears to be popular, based on recent polling, popular celebrations following the announcement and a largely positive reception by many media outlets. In the eyes of many Tunisians, the institutions targeted by Saied—the government, the legislature and the largest political parties—had become associated with corruption and incompetence, an association he is now trying to strengthen by staging an anti-corruption campaign and other demonstrations of state capacity, including a newly successful vaccination campaign.

More uncertainty shrouds Tunisia’s political future than at any point since the mass protests of 2011’s Arab uprisings overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. There is little doubt, however, that the political system that began to take shape after his ouster has failed to deliver on its initial promise. To better understand how Saied was able to take power and why many cheered him in doing so, it is important to understand the ways that the party system contributed to the fragility of Tunisian democracy. Parties largely failed to offer clear policy choices to voters, form accountable governments or build durable organizations capable of engaging in long-term strategy. The failures of Tunisia’s party system precipitated the rise of Kais Saied, ensured that few institutional checks were in place to deal with a constitutional crisis and contributed to the joy, relief or apathy expressed by many Tunisians upon the freezing of their legislature. Just as Tunisia was never on a certain transition to democracy, there is no guarantee that democracy will be restored. But in any case, it will be important to account for the ways in which the party system failed to consolidate relationships of representation and accountability. How did it fail so miserably? Was it destined to fail, as some analysts have suggested, or can its sources and the process be traced?

 

When Democratic Elections Do Not Lead to Accountable Governments

 

Beginning in 2011, Tunisia established a system designed to encourage pluralism and checks and balances after decades of single-party authoritarian rule. The system established by the country’s 2014 constitution and other legal frameworks include a highly proportional electoral law and regulated campaign system designed to lower barriers to entry and ensure an even playing field. On paper these mechanisms furnished voters with plenty of choice: In the 2011 election, the median district featured 54 choices, in 2014 the median was 44 and in 2019 it was 50.

Despite this pluralism on paper, in each election many parties seemed indistinguishable, especially regarding voters’ everyday concerns such as unemployment, regional inequalities, purchasing power, the quality of public services and corruption. To be sure, parties faced pressure to articulate detailed platforms. The largest parties convened groups of experts to draft plans that focused mostly on economic issues. Many of these experts were largely independent from the party that summoned them, however, and their platforms never became part of the parties’ long-term identities. The parties struggled to draw sharp distinctions between each other, and policy issues played little role in the campaigns. Political parties were instead primarily distinguished by their relationship to the old regime, their prior participation in government and their relationship with political Islam and its main partisan embodiment, Ennahda. Most of the parties remained closely associated with the individuals who led them.

National elections turned out to be a poor mechanism for choosing highly accountable representatives or government. Although their attendance is tracked by Al-Bawsala, a well-known non-governmental organization, deputies in the legislature who were elected in 2014 only attended around 70 percent of the plenary sessions on average. Even after voters replaced three quarters of their legislators in the 2019 elections, that statistic remained the same. Poor attendance has made it difficult for the legislature to pass important measures. Elections have also seemingly played less of a role in who joins the government than negotiations among elites. Since the passage of the constitution, Tunisia has had four prime ministers, none of whom was a well-known figure in a party chosen by a large number of voters. Three have lasted less than a year. The most important ministries—among them defense, interior, finance, justice and foreign affairs—have been led almost exclusively by figures unaffiliated with any political party.

Since the passage of the constitution, Tunisia has had four prime ministers, none of whom was a well-known figure in a party chosen by a large number of voters.

A critical turning point for the Tunisian party system occurred immediately following the 2014 elections. After a long national dialogue culminated in the passage of a constitution, the 2014 elections featured two large parties with distinct identities, secular Nidaa Tounes and Islamist Ennahda. The rhetoric surrounding the election was intense, with both parties suggesting that the other might imperil democracy itself. But with voters turning out at a relatively high rate of roughly 45 percent, it seemed like the chastened governing party of Ennahda was headed to the opposition while the former opposition, Nidaa Tounes, had a mandate to govern.

But rather than form a government by allying with smaller secular parties that offered a similar orientation, the party formed a government with its antithesis, Ennahda, thereby engaging in what political scientists Dan Slater and Erica Simmons call “promiscuous power sharing.” Instead of appointing a party leader as prime minister, the new government turned to independent bureaucrat Habib Essid. Essid ignored the platform fashioned by the party before the elections and instead formed a program based on the priorities of each minister that he selected. The government, owned by no major political power and with no clear agenda, was unable to operate effectively, which paved the way for a series of “national unity” governments where all parties and independents were invited to take part. With nearly all parties participating in government, it was difficult to determine who governed, making accountability difficult.

 

Party Organizations That Were Not There

 

Politicians did not invest in constructing durable party organizations either. Before the 2014 elections, Nidaa Tounes brought together secular politicians from leftist, liberal and labor union movements. But after winning the elections, in the words of a former party executive, “No leader was left in the party to build the Nidaa institution. They all left to become ministers, governors or spokespeople of the president.”[1] The party was never able to hold a national convention and the few attempts to do so led to either violent struggles or immediate party splits. By 2019, Nidaa Tounes had fragmented into four different parties that all had a similar ideological outlook.

Unlike Nidaa, Ennahda seemed to invest more resources and effort in building institutions. It held party conferences in 2012 and 2016 with elections for leadership positions and published their results. According to Al-Bawsala, the party’s legislative bloc has had the highest rate of attendance and voting participation of any bloc in each of the three elected legislatures. But either afraid of isolation and the potential of an Egypt-like crackdown or just unwilling to eschew the spoils of office, the party has largely refused to retreat to the opposition, even as its vote share has declined sharply in each election. Its loose alliance with Nidaa Tounes led to bizarre policy positions that further shook the public’s trust in the parties. For example, the two parties passed the economic reconciliation law in 2018, which created an amnesty for pre-revolution corruption in the public administration and was supported by many Ennahda legislators and grassroots activists.[2]

Ennahda’s commitment to remaining in the government continued after the 2019 elections, as well. It managed to win a plurality in the 2019 elections, but with only 20 percent of the vote, it took a route similar to Nidaa Tounes in 2014. First it tried to form a largely technocratic government and when that failed it joined one alongside its largest rival, a party that before the elections it had referred to as the “party of corruption.” Ennahda leaders emphasize that their party has been uniquely willing to bear the burden of serving the country by participating in government. But as a constant in post-uprising administrations, Ennahda has become associated with the government’s myriad failures in the eyes of many citizens. And despite the party’s reputation as the best organized in Tunisia, for the last two years the party has appeared increasingly divided.

Few parties have managed to grow over the course of time. Even those that seem to have gradually gained strength may decompose.
The problems with the party system extend beyond Ennahda and the offshoots of Nidaa Tounes. Few parties have managed to grow over the course of time. Even those that seem to have gradually gained strength may decompose. Since 2014, the Democratic Current has made steady gains, becoming the third strongest party in parliament in 2019. But the party’s popular leader, Mohammed Abbou, abruptly resigned in late 2020, undoing years of effort. In an interview we held with him shortly after Saied’s July announcement, he suggested that “this is not a time for parties in our country.” According to Abbou, the political class writ large is unreliable and dishonest, and the only way to save Tunisian democracy is to encourage the honest president of the country to take radical measures. Abbou, a prominent political prisoner under Ben Ali, publicly suggested the exercise of Article 80 as early as December 2020.

The heyday of Tunisia’s party system was probably 2014. Two highly distinguishable large parties, with a number of smaller parties, was a promising foundation for a democratic future. According to the Arab Barometer and Afrobarometer, two multi-country public opinion survey projects, this time was when citizens felt the closest to the political parties. Their data shows that partisanship grew between 2011 and 2013 and dropped between 2013 and 2018. Asked to name a party that most closely represented their aspirations, less than a quarter could do so in October 2011. In 2013, as Nidaa Tounes emerged, almost half of respondents had a favorite party. But that percentage fell steadily in subsequent surveys and dropped to sub-2011 levels by spring 2018. As voters got to know the country’s parties, trust in political parties writ large dropped. In 2011, almost 40 percent of respondents expressed “absolutely no trust” in the political parties. That figure grew to approximately 60 percent in 2016 and more than 70 percent in 2018. Other anti-partisan attitudes grew as well. In 2014, 18 percent of Tunisians expressed support for the hypothetical scenario in which “Elections and Parliament are abolished so that the president can decide everything.” By 2018, that figure was 34 percent. The largely positive response to Saied’s action suggests that the number may be even higher today.

 

A Democracy Without Parties?

 

In the 2019 presidential elections, Saied rose to power on the wave of anti-partisanship. He described parties as anachronistic, corrupt institutions getting between the people and their representatives. He excoriated Tunisia’s parties for “aborting” the revolution. Even as his counterparts used personal popularity to form parties, Saied refused. Distinguishing himself from the exercise of platform-building supposedly practiced by the country’s parties, Saied emphasized that he offered no promises save a project to establish a decentralized, participatory democracy. Repeatedly pressed before the elections on how he would achieve a change in the political system without a clear political base in the legislature that would vote on it, Saied demurred, suggesting that he would merely lay out his project and that the legislature would bear responsibility for accepting it or not.

But rather than proposing his plan after taking office, Saied seemed to remain in a campaign against the parties. As if to prove his point, the legislature produced by the 2019 elections was fractious, featuring a larger set of parties that included the anti-Islamist Free Destourian Party, which frequently disrupted the legislature’s proceedings. With a plurality, Ennahda had the first opportunity to form a government. But with only a fifth of the seats and much opposition, it appointed an unknown figure as prime minister who tried to form what he described as “a government of national technocrats independent of all parties.”[3] Yet it failed to win the support of the legislature. Saied then appointed Elyes Fakhfakh, the head of a party that had not performed well in an election since 2011. With the threat of early elections looming, the parties in parliament supported Fakhfakh’s government, which included Ennahda and other parties. The government managed to perform relatively well, especially in handling the initial wave of COVID-19 but was forced out of office after several months due to accusations of a conflict of interest involving the prime minister. Some blamed the ouster on Ennahda and Qalb Tounes, a rhetorically populist offshoot of Nidaa Tounes. Saied then turned to Hichem Mechichi, a little-known bureaucrat, who promised to form a government of what he called “completely independent competent people.”[4] Without a political base of his own, Mechichi became increasingly close to the largest parties in the legislature and increasingly at odds with Saied. The Mechichi government’s failures to contain a deadly coronavirus outbreak and its economic effects contributed to the current crisis and facilitated Saied’s invocation of Article 80.

An important outstanding question relates to the sources of support for Saied’s actions. The literature on durable dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa suggests that if the security apparatuses of the state—the army and the police—rally around a strongman, he could build an authoritarian regime. In this case, chiefs of both organizations were sitting at the table when Saied announced his actions on July 25 on live television, signaling their initial support. The generals and police officers had their reasons for supporting Saied on July 25, whether concern for the country’s dismal situation or perhaps antipathy toward the Islamists. But it is unclear whether they will stick with him if he continues to consolidate power. Saied, with 73 percent of the vote in the 2019 presidential run-off elections and visible support for his July 25 emergency actions, seems to be popular across different social segments, though more research is needed on this point. The exception is likely a lack of support among those who identify closely with Ennahda and Qalb Tounes, as well as some members of the political elite. But he now inherits complicated social and economic problems and may no longer be positioned to avoid blame, as journalist Fadil Aliriza astutely points out.

Tunisians are waiting for Saied to propose, negotiate or proclaim a roadmap, with many hoping that he will do so in a way that maintains liberties but establishes good governance.
Regarding the political system itself, Tunisians are waiting for Saied to propose, negotiate or proclaim a roadmap, with many hoping that he will do so in a way that maintains liberties but establishes good governance. Many Tunisians currently expect Saied to lead a major anti-corruption legal campaign. That campaign would target and disgrace the main political parties and leaders of the country. To some of his supporters, the campaign could clean up the political sphere sufficiently to facilitate early elections. But it seems unlikely that Saied would support elections without major changes to the electoral law. Moreover, Saied appears to favor the adoption of a new constitution, likely featuring a presidential system. Prior to July 25, the president reportedly expressed support for a referendum on changing the political system and a group of politicians and members of civil society recently announced the formation of a front to push for one. But as of today, it remains unclear when Tunisians will be asked to vote and what will be on the ballot.

At the core of debates over the political system lies a key disagreement. While some Tunisians argue that pluralism in the country’s institutions should be curbed, others suggest that it should be furthered. Majoritarian proposals like relatively high electoral thresholds and directly elected mayors can strengthen accountability and avoid party fragmentation. On the other hand, Saied and others propose more decentralization, council democracy and a post-party future. Many people around the world are wary of political parties, which they see as polarizing, divisive and corrupt organizations. It would therefore be inspiring if Tunisia could find a better solution. But establishing a decentralized party-less regime that can maintain liberties and achieve better outcomes for its citizens still seems like a distant prospect. And if the goal is to achieve decentralized democracy, entrusting one man with greater power seems like a challenging place to start.

 

[Nate Grubman is a teaching fellow in Civic, Liberal, and Global Education at Stanford University. Aytuğ Şaşmaz is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and Rule of Law.]

 


 

Endnotes

 

[1] Interview with a Nidaa Tounes party executive by Sasmaz, April 2019.

[2] In the Tunisian Local Election Candidates Survey (LECS), 70 percent of Ennahda’s member candidates supported the Economic Reconciliation Law. LECS was conducted by Alex Blackman, Julia Clark and Şaşmaz prior to the 2018 local elections. For more information on the survey: https://aytugsasmaz.files.wordpress.com/2019/11/lecs_brief_survey_final.pdf.

[3] Habib Jemli, December 24, 2019 press conference.

[4] Hichem Mechichi, August 10, 2020 press conference.

 

How to cite this article:

Nate Grubman, Aytuğ Şaşmaz "The Collapse of Tunisia’s Party System and the Rise of Kais Saied," Middle East Report Online, August 17, 2021.
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