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Tunisians head for the polls amid dimming faith in democracy

Tunisians protest against tax hikes, austerity measures and increased food prices. EPA-EFE/Mohamed Messara

Tunisians, and the wider world, expected a great deal after the dawn of democracy in 2011. This followed the popular uprisings that ended President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorial rule.

But even two years after those momentous events, many were beginning to doubt both the new government and the democracy it claimed to embody.

Those doubts have deepened.

On 15 September the nation will go to the polls to elect a new president in its second free elections since 2011. The election will be a major challenge for the country’s fledgling democracy.

The hope since 2011 has been for a government that would be responsive to ordinary Tunisians’ needs. This has given way to disillusionment. Most in the country have lost faith in the government.

To understand what has gone wrong, we need to remind ourselves what the protesters were demanding in 2011, and what concerns have been repeatedly reflected in opinion polls ever since.

What people wanted

Protesters who took to the streets eight years ago wanted the end of dictatorship under Ben Ali. This was widely interpreted at the time as a demand for liberal democracy, free and fair elections as well as civil and political rights.

But at best, this is only half the story. The 2011 demonstrations were also against poor living standards, unemployment, police violence, government corruption and a lack of human rights. These grievances were summed up in the popular slogan of the time,

Employment, freedom, national dignity.

As our research has shown, there was widespread popular support for the overthrow of the Ben Ali government in 2010/11.

And, according to the findings from the Arab Barometer public opinion poll, while a quarter of Tunisians took part in the demonstrations against the regime, over 80% expressed support for the protests.

After Ali’s fall, Tunisians were optimistic about their country’s future and looked forward to having a democratic government that would drive the political and economic changes they had demanded.

Over 80% were confident that the new government would deliver on democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights, better economic opportunities and greater social justice.

But the euphoria didn’t last long. Within a few years it had been replaced with disillusionment and disaffection. The disaffection has since grown progressively stronger, as shown by the findings of public opinion polls carried out by the African research network Afrobarometer.

Earlier this year when protesters took to the streets they were making exactly the same demands as in 2011. Their slogan was, once again: “employment, liberty, national dignity!”

The main drivers of the disaffection and anger were a number of adverse developments, combined with a lack of progress in crucial areas.

Democracy project in danger

One of the least welcome developments has been a noticeable shift towards illiberalism in governance. At the end of 2015 the government declared a state of emergency following the deaths of 39 tourists in a terrorist attack.

Two years later these measures were written into law under new emergency legislation. This gave the government the power to monitor the press, quash protests and close mosques and civil society associations.

Another negative development has been a breakdown in consensus among the country’s elites. Islamists and non-Islamists have begun to compete for control over state resources.

These developments exacerbated underlying problems. These included the government’s failure to deliver on the promise of democracy, and its failure to revive the economy. For example, unemployment remains unacceptably high.

World Development Indicators

Growing despair

The failure of the government to solve the country’s economic problems challenges its legitimacy. Tunisians have also become increasingly frustrated with the high levels of corruption.

According to a public opinion poll early this year only 8% of Tunisians think that their country is heading in the right direction (compared with 62% in 2012). A massive 87% think it is heading quite the wrong way (compared with 30% in 2012).

Only 30% of Tunisians believe that they can influence political decision making through the ballot box. Support for all political parties has plummeted, with two thirds saying that no party represents their interests.

The poll also found that only 28% of Tunisians voted in the 2018 municipal elections, with only 31% definitely intending to vote in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections.

Support for democracy as the preferred form of government has fallen from 71% in 2013 to 46% in 2018, according to Afrobarometer, with only 33% agreeing that their country is a democracy.

Hunger for real change

Through international eyes Tunisia is seen as a country that has successfully made the transition to democracy, and as a beacon of hope in a region beset by civil war, failed states and a return to dictatorship. It is rated “free” by Freedom House and a “flawed democracy” by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

For its part, the European Union is willing to support Tunisia’s “thin” electoral democracy. This is because it the EU has, in recent years, prioritised its own security over North Africa’s democratisation.

But, the western perception of what’s happening in Tunisia differs sharply with Tunisian’s daily reality.

The truth is that Tunisia’s political transformation is in trouble. What Tunisians want is for their government to deliver on the substance of democracy, which is tangible fairness. And they want their social and economic rights guaranteed as well as their civil and political rights. Being able to cast a vote doesn’t cut it.

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