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Partisan, electoral and governmental perspectives in Tunisia

December 17, 2018 at 7:15 pm

High school and secondary school teachers stage a demonstration demanding wage increase, early retirement and education reform in front of the Tunisian General Labour Union building as they march to the Habib Burgiba Avenue in Tunis, Tunisia on 12 December 2018. [Nacer Talel/Anadolu Agency]

The political situation in Tunisia is volatile and fragile, and could have multiple results. I want to tackle three perspectives: partisan, electoral and governmental. These are intertwined and converge on a common point: the eternal struggle for power and domination over positions of influence and decision-making.

On a partisan level, the existing fragile interests and alliances meet around either electoral calculations or current parliamentary coalitions aimed at passing laws or budgets, forming constitutional structures or renewing confidence in governments, without clear policies. These alliances do not rise to the level of entities or partisan blocs based on programmes, visions and shared perceptions. Hence, they are also susceptible to destruction and restructuring at any time, according to the law of interests and the variables on the political scene. This is evidenced by the hybrid National Coalition, which originated from the ruins of other parliamentary blocs, and seeks to provide controversial and conditional support to Prime Minister Youssef Chahed. It is also aimed at influencing parliamentary action and formulating common strategies for the next legislative and presidential elections.

These circumstantial and hybrid parliamentary blocs require us to consider further their proposals imposed on Tunisia since the revolution, without any moral and legislative controls; hence, we have partisan tourism, which has corrupted politics and contributed to its volatility. They also pose a moral dilemma that contributed to lowering the level of trust in the political class and putting it in the dock for its absence of principles and values, and the prevalence of interests. The members of this political echelon have betrayed their constituents and disclaimed them because they changed the party affiliation on which they were elected and violated the moral and political contract meant to bind them to their voters. Whatever arguments, excuses and justifications they present, they remain below the voters’ expectations and expectancies of a political elite they have chosen on the basis of political programmes and commitments, as well as ideological and partisan affiliations.

Two separate but critical electoral stages are awaiting voters and the political class. The importance of the legislative and presidential elections lies in preparing for the reformation of the political and partisan map and the balance of power following a test of governance and the implementation of the programmes that has taken four years. The result is at the very least weak and disappointing.

As such, the potential to change the ruling class is possible if true alternatives are found that are characterised by credibility, qualification and the ability to rally the people and gain their confidence. It is known that the elections are usually an occasion for accountability and responsibility, and the punishment of political parties and factions that did not keep their promises and commitments. This explains the disconnection between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes parties because both wish to avoid the negative outcome of their past in government and seek to hold the other party responsible. It is likely, therefore, that the same old electoral conflict will emerge between the modernists and retro-activists, and between those who seek to achieve peace and stability and those who hide behind tension and terrorism. This is evidenced in the dilemma experienced by Ennahda, which is aggravated further and promoted by the presidency as well as Nidaa Tounes, after it had covered it up for so long and surrounded it with ambiguity.

Ennahda finds itself required to pass two basic tests with the least possible damage. The first is the draft bill regarding equality in inheritance, which is being opposed strongly within the party and among its supporters. This is forcing the party to mobilise and unite its ranks, and gather MPs and blocs at the heart of parliament to support it in voting against the bill. This looks difficult given that the progressive majority in parliament is in favour of the bill in the form it was presented to the People’s Assembly for approval. Ennahda does not want to mobilise support on the streets as it may be held against the party and lead to it being accused of affecting law and order. The party is also afraid of being categorised internally and externally as a regressive force in the run up to a crucial and fateful election.

The second test relates to the parallel security agencies and the “black ops” of the Ministry of the Interior. This brings to mind a politically partisan approach to prevent possible political and security fluctuations adopted by a party whose leaders have suffered displacement, persecution and torture. One of its top priorities is to take precautions for every emergency or development caused by the fragile internal situation and the shifting and unclear regional situation. Accordingly, one of its unannounced vital and strategic programmes after the revolution was to penetrate the deep state in order to find supportive forces in public institutions.

The parallel security agencies and black ops fall into this context, as they are presented to the Ennahda movement as a fateful test which can only be solved by judicial acquittal. This is because, no matter how loud the voices of their leaders are and how heated their speeches become, today the matter is one for the National Security Council and the judiciary to give their final judgement.

The third dominant feature on the political scene in Tunisia is the weak performance of the government and the absence of political will to impose major reforms. This is due to shaky hands at the helm, hoarse voices and rampant corruption in government institutions. In addition, there is a lack of accountability, liability and evaluation of the performance of politicians, and of officials being punished by governments since the revolution. Ministers, state writers, prime ministers, consultants and high-ranking officials have been dismissed or allowed to complete their duties without any accountability, supervision or performance evaluation. Estrangement amongst successive officials in the same position has become commonplace and reflects the lack of state continuity and its weakness as a distinctive feature of governance.

This reminds us of a stage in the past that we believed we had put behind us related to the personalising of institutions and painting them with the same brush as their officials’ temperaments, personalities and orientations. We have not yet reached the state of institutionalising government. This phenomenon has been inflated despite reaching important stages in building the democratic transition, as a result of the nature of the political system that resulted from the 2014 Constitution; a modified parliamentary system that produces political and governmental instability, inevitably leading to the absence of accountability and responsibility. This is due to the lack of a clear parliamentary majority and a strong opposition capable of activating the mechanisms of control, and exercising its role as a force of pressure, modification and the provision of alternatives.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.