Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)
At the 10-year anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution, which toppled decades of dictatorship and repositioned discussions about democracy across the Middle East and North Africa, the democratic transition in Tunisia is in flux, or rather at an impasse. On the one hand, Tunisia is celebrated as the lone democratic success story of the 2011 Arab Uprisings, based on multiple cycles of free and fair elections. On the other hand, serious domestic political agitation over the last decade, coupled with deep structural inequalities and a rise in public perceptions of corruption in government, has nearly derailed its course towards democratic consolidation and stability.
Democratisation in Tunisia has hinged on the widely celebrated mechanism of consensus among political adversaries in parliament, and among key political and civil society actors. Yet, instead of achieving consensus on critical political and economic-structural reforms, compromise-based arrangements have fallen apart due to intense party infighting, regular resignations of governments, and enormous public pressure resulting from a stagnating economy and lack of vision for comprehensive and equitable economic reform. The effect has been sustained infighting over economic and social policy, which in turn has resulted in diminishing public trust in political parties and new democratic institutions, an all-time low level of satisfaction with the government’s performance and a significant rise in contentious politics, particularly between 2019 and 2021. The proliferation of micro-parties (209 registered political parties for a population of 11.8 million) has resulted in confusion among the electorate, while the economic reality of a suffocating international debt crisis, which has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has rendered levels of public trust in government to an all-time low.
At this pivotal moment, Tunisia needs a clear political plan that encompasses a framework for productive political competition and a sound economic vision. To enter into the phase of democratic consolidation – defined as the moment of political, economic and societal stability when authoritarian rule begins to diminish – Tunisian elected authorities and the international community must address rising public demands, which emanate from across all socio-economic classes, for wealth redistribution and sound fiscal policy reform. More effective and transparent public spending will alleviate issues of public trust in all aspects of governance. Reconstructing trust in new democratic institutions is key and also requires a concerted effort to build democracy from the bottom up, particularly in marginal and impoverished areas where socio-economic ills are deeply entrenched, and where political contention is rampant and highest.