On Tunisia's local elections
My Crisis Group colleague Michael Ayari and I have penned an op-ed for Le Monde, published yesterday, analyzing the outcome of the local elections that took place on Sunday 6 May. It's in French, so let me address key points we made here:
- The local elections are important as part of the democratic transformation the country is haltingly going through – postponed four times, they are a key component of the constitutional process set in motion in 2014 and will return the first democratically elected local officials since the 2011 uprising, hopefully reinforcing the legitimacy of local government.
- However they are also important politically. Tunisia is entering an 18-month cycle of electoral activity, starting with these local polls and ending with parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019. These will no doubt test the alliance between Nida Tounes and Nahda that has stabilized the country through a broad consensus, but in part because it is too broad, deprived the governing coalition of vitality and direction at times.
- Early results (official ones should be out tonight) suggest low turnout – no surprise considering how disaffected many Tunisians are with politicians, another consequence of the "mushy consensus" (to borrow from the French expression consensus mou) – and decent results for Nahda and independents, while coalition partner Nida Tounes, the party of President Beji Said Essebsi, drops.
- These elections thus emphasize the Achilles' heel of the current governing coalition: Nida Tounes' weakness and gradual disintegration, as it is not capable of organizing all political forces belonging to the "Destourian" current (nationalist/secular, ranging from genuine democrats to former regime holdvers). Other political forces have failed to break through either.
- If Nida Tounes goes into the 2019 election cycle in disarray, it will face tremendous difficulty in coalescing around a parliamentary electoral strategy and a presidential candidate. Nahda however remains disciplined and capable of uniting, and as a result has paradoxically become key to Nida Tounes' internal stability (as its coordination in these elections have shown). But it cannot make up for the party's internal divides.
- This points to the looming problem facing Tunisia politically: the coalition between Nida Tounes is perceived as unnatural by many (especially among Nida Tounes supporters) and while Nahda has made many concessions it is not really a junior partner, as was originally intended by Essebsi. The regional polarisation over political Islam (Qatar crisis, etc.) makes maintaining the consensus more difficult.
- The success that independents have had – many of them former RCD (Ben Ali's party before 2011) members – suggest a reconfiguration of the political landscape under way on the secular side. Some may seek negotiation with Nida Tounes, but will demand greater control of the party and feed into the parliamentary candidate selection process. Others may decide to form a rival bloc to it, perhaps on an anti-consensus platform. (Former RCD members are split on Nahda: many have been courted quite effectively by the Islamist party, share its general conservatism and have received its help in these elections. Others are die-hard anti-Islamists, closer to the Arab nationalist left.)
- One key lesson of this election is that the disaffection with the consensus politics in place since 2014 must be look at seriously. Key grievances, aside corruption, include the lack of any fundamental change the country is run, especially its regional inequalities and access to economic opportunity. The current consensus, to be maintained (which is desirable to avoid a lapse into the polarisation seen elsewhere), needs to take that on. Otherwise new political forces may campaign against the mixed record of the governing coalition in 2019, including against the principle of compromise and democratic progress.