Consensus Politics Has Failed Tunisia

Consensus Politics Has Failed Tunisia

Tunisia will elect a new parliament on December 17, for the third time since the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown nearly 12 years ago. But these elections are not like the last two, which took place in 2014 and 2019. Let's start with the fact that the Tunisian parliament has been suspended for the past year and a half. Then, in September, President Qais Said issued a decree on a new electoral law that limits the ability of political parties to campaign for parliamentary seats and gives him the power to ban candidates at his discretion. In response, the opposition announced a boycott of the elections.

Saturday's vote will change little in the distribution of power in Tunisia. On the contrary, it will further solidify Said's personal dominance behind the façade of democratic politics. Just 12 years after the ouster of a longtime dictator, Tunisia is back on the brink of authoritarianism.

Tunisia is not alone. Authoritarianism is on the rise around the world, a trend often associated by political scientists with polarization. In this narrative, polarization leads to a dangerous erosion of democratic norms as competing parties seek to defeat each other. But this is only one side of the matter. Democracy in Tunisia collapsed not because there was too much polarization, but because there was too little of it.

Tunisia will elect a new parliament on December 17, for the third time since the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown nearly 12 years ago. But these elections are not like the last two, which took place in 2014 and 2019. Let's start with the fact that the Tunisian parliament has been suspended for the past year and a half. Then, in September, President Qais Said issued a decree on a new electoral law that limits the ability of political parties to campaign for parliamentary seats and gives him the power to ban candidates at his discretion. In response, the opposition announced a boycott of the elections.

Saturday's vote will change little in the distribution of power in Tunisia. On the contrary, it will further solidify Said's personal dominance behind the façade of democratic politics. Just 12 years after the ouster of a longtime dictator, Tunisia is back on the brink of authoritarianism.

Tunisia is not alone. Authoritarianism is on the rise around the world, a trend often associated by political scientists with polarization. In this narrative, polarization leads to a dangerous erosion of democratic norms as competing parties seek to defeat each other. But this is only one side of the matter. Democracy in Tunisia collapsed not because there was too much polarization, but because there was too little of it.

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The populist backlash that brought Said to power in 2019 was a reaction to years of stagnation in consensus politics. Tunisia's largest political party, the Islamist Ennahda, has long been locked in a fragmented grand coalition and has failed to pass landmark legislation, let alone pass the reforms a new democracy needs to protect its institutions from dictatorship. Said campaigned on a populist party platform, vowing to defend the will of the people against the corrupt machine of established party politics.

Political scientist (and founder of foreign policy ) Samuel P. Huntington argued in 1991 that Tunisia, then a dictatorship, was a prime candidate for democratization. He gave some important advice to future Democrats during the political transition. avoid conflict at all costs. Rachad Ghannoushi, the leader of Ennahda, would have been the top student in Huntington's class. When democracy was born in Tunisia two decades later, Ghannouchi returned to Tunisia from exile in London, determined to help his country strengthen democracy.

Under Ghannouchi, a generation of opposition activists, Islamists and secularists returned, who sought to determine the fate of the new democracy in the country. In 2011, Tunisians elected a National Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution. A coalition of parties called the Troika, led by Ennahda; the secular Congress of the Republic; and Social Democrat Ettakatol led the country's government for the next three years, before the creation of parliament in 2014.

Many Ennahda leaders personally experienced decades of imprisonment, torture or exile under Ben Ali. Among Tunisian dissidents, the Islamists were the most persecuted. However, these victims of repression quickly made peace with the representatives of the old regime. “After I got out of prison, I forgot everything that happened,” former Ennahda Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali told me in 2020.

In the government, Ennahda did her best to promote compromise and reconciliation. In 2011, the Islamists won a landslide victory in the elections to the National Constituent Assembly. However, fearing that he would be perceived as a monopoly force, Ganushi decided to form the Troika coalition, which had almost a two-thirds majority in power. Two years later, faced with a protest movement against Islamist political influence, An Nahda Prime Minister Ali Larayed voluntarily agreed to step down in January 2014. That same month, Al-Nahda's leadership dropped calls to include references to Islamic law in the country's new constitution and instead adopted what is the most progressive constitution in the Arab world.

In late 2013, Ghanushi personally intervened to veto a transitional justice bill that would limit the old elites' influence in the National Constituent Assembly. A year later, Ennahda desperately forged a coalition with secularist Nida Tounes, led by a figure linked to the Ben Ali regime. Despite finishing second in the 2014 elections, Ennada accepted one ministerial position out of 26.

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The Tunisian government of national unity, while looking stable, has failed miserably on some of its promises. At times, the governing coalition, which accounted for 82 percent of parliamentary seats, seemed literally unable to function. Between 2014 and 2019, more than 80 draft laws were under consideration by parliamentarians. Ennahda and Nida Townes, fearful of ruffled feathers, refused to advance legislative priorities. For example, Ennahda and Nidaa Townes created a constitutional court in 2015. But four years later, its 12 members were still not elected, trying to avoid infighting.

As a result, the confidence of the Tunisian public in their country's new political system rapidly declined. In 2019, Ennahda voters, angry at their leaders for making concessions to the old establishment, left the party en masse and defected to the Karama separatist coalition, a hardline Islamist party opposed to engagement with the country's secular forces. Ennahda's share of the vote fell from 37% in the 2011 National Constituent Assembly elections to 28% and 20% in the 2014 and 2019 legislative elections, respectively. And with a ruling coalition made up of all the country's major parties, Tunisians viewed the government's failures as a symptom not of one party's decisions, but of the failure of the political system as a whole. In 2018, according to an Afrobarometer poll, 81% of Tunisians said they had broken with all political parties. Support for democracy has fallen from 71% in 2013 to 46% in just five years.

When it came time to elect a new president in 2019, Tunisians had enough support to win overwhelmingly with Said, who is not affiliated with any political party. That year's parliamentary elections failed to produce a majority for either party, leaving the legislature divided and powerless to resist the ambitions of the new president.

Over the next three years, many Tunisians enjoyed moving closer to the political system that the president despised. In July 2021, 10 years after the Tunisian revolution, angry protesters once again gathered in the capital's Kasbah, only this time the crowds demanded an end to democracy. Said was forced to dismiss the prime minister and suspend parliament. Two months after the self-government coup, Said transferred to himself all the powers that he had before, and in February he dismissed all members of the Supreme Judicial Body, which contributed to the independence of the judiciary. The president promised that his government would "save the country" from crisis and chaos.

Ennada, still obsessed with finding a compromise, found herself powerless to respond to the president, who was anything but him. Without a functioning constitutional court, nothing could have prevented Said's coup. Its new constitution, approved by plebiscite in July, gives the president the power to appoint ministers and judges by decree without the approval of the legislature or judiciary. Meanwhile, over the past year, the Tunisian police and intelligence agencies have arrested many journalists and politicians on charges of corruption or terrorism. The insistence of the Tunisian parties on compromise and reconciliation has led to the defeat of the leader, who does not accept anyone.

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Even after Said's coup in July 2021, Ennahda's leadership has gradually moved away from its accommodating stance. At first, in a silent statement, he called Said's adoption "an opportunity for reform." Subsequently, more than 100 top party officials resigned in protest at the party's inability to fight authoritarianism. Ennada is still torn apart by internal divisions, with more people calling for Ghannouchi to be replaced by a new generation of leaders.

A growing group at Ennahda seems to understand that consensus politics is no longer the order of the day. Along with other opposition parties, Ghannouchi's Ennahda party boycotted Saturday's legislative elections and refused to recognize the results of the July constitutional referendum. Ennada joined the National Salvation Front, a motley collection of about 20 groups and parties led by left-wing leader Ahmed Najib Chebi. The National Salvation Front is trying to put pressure on the government to start a dialogue with the opposition.

Tunisian history is common. Populism thrives when major political parties unite, making authoritarianism the only viable alternative to a corrupt political system. The neoliberal turn of social democratic parties in Europe in the 1990s eventually led to the rise of populists from the French National Assembly to the Austrian Freedom Party. And before the Venezuelan populist magician Hugo Chavez seized power in 1999 on a platform of sweeping change, the so-called "partiality" in Caracas had long suffered from the ineffectiveness and corruption of consensus politics.

It's time to update Huntington's old book on democratization. Instead of avoiding conflict, politicians should be clear and respectful about their differences. Tunisia's recent slide into authoritarianism is a warning. Extreme polarization can subvert democracy, but the same can be said for excessive consensus.

Deal with the crisis in Tunisia in 10 minutes. Author: Arezki Daoud

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