COPY: The coalition takes office in Tunisia

04 January 2012

The newly elected government in Tunisia needs to act quickly. Writing the new constitution and addressing economic disparities will be its biggest challenge

Key fact

Unemployment among 20-24 year olds in Tunisia is 27.5 per cent and among graduates it is about 23.3 per cent

Source: MEED

The ceremony to mark the transition of power from Tunisia’s interim leadership to the newly elected government on 26 December was a momentous occasion in the country’s modern history. For the first time since gaining independence from France in 1956, a Tunisian leader willingly stepped down from office. Coming one year after Mohamed Bouazizi’s desperate act of self-immolation that triggered the 2011 Arab uprisings, the proceedings offer hope that the country has embarked on a new chapter of freedom and democracy. However, the way forward is far from certain.

If [Ennahda] attempted to introduce a conservative … agenda in the first year … that would go down badly

Richard Cochrane, IHS Global Insight

Following elections for the National Constituent Assembly held on 23 October, Tunisia is being governed by a coalition of parties. The prime minister is Hamadi Jebali from the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which won the most seats in the election; the transitional president is Moncef Marzouki, who is leader of the secular Congress for the Republic party; and the speaker of the assembly is Mustapha Ben Jafaar, leader of another secular party, Ettakatol.

Public scrutiny

The troika, as the power-sharing coalition has become known in the local media, have to draft a new constitution and hold fresh elections within a year to 18 months. This is in line with commitments made by the interim authorities in the weeks following the overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

The three men and their parties are in the unusual position of having everything to win and lose. Over the next year, their every action and comment will be scrutinised by the public as they weigh up whom to vote for in the next election.

The interim leadership that emerged after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on 14 January 2011, lacked the legitimacy to make major strategic decisions. Its task was to keep the country running while preparing the political frameworks and democratic processes to elect representatives of the people. In this it was largely successful. Although economic growth stagnated, political paralysis was avoided. Ben Ali and his associates were prosecuted, a draft budget for 2012 was drawn up and elections held that were deemed free and fair.

The newly elected government has the backing of the people to change the direction of the country if necessary. It has the legitimacy its predecessors lacked, but it is a government constrained by time. It is also a coalition of three parties, each with their own agenda and designs on power.

As the dominant political force in the 217-member assembly having won 91 seats, Jebali and Ennahda have the most to lose and gain in the months ahead. The party did far better than its coalition partners: the Congress for the Republic took 30 seats, while Ettakatol won 21. In addition to appealing to Tunisians’ religious sensibilities, analysts say Ennahda benefited from its long opposition to Ben Ali. The party was banned under the former regime and Jebali, its co-founder, was imprisoned for 16 years.

The people on the streets are waiting for results and are beginning to get impatient

Richard Cochrane, IHS Global Insight

The leadership will now be looking to increase Ennahda’s support across the country and ensure its re-election with an outright majority. But it will be judged on whether it can get the economy growing again and provide jobs for the estimated 1 million unemployed, as well as reassuring investors not to abandon Tunisia.

Now that the new government has been sworn in, expectations are high that social and economic conditions will improve. It is one year since the former regime was toppled and for the ordinary Tunisian, life has not improved. For many, it has got worse because of a continued rise in unemployment.

Islamist agenda

There has been much discussion internationally of the fact that Ennahda is an Islamist party and the influence this will have on its political agenda. But with its eye on the bigger prize, Ennahda is unlikely to risk alienating potential voters by pushing to introduce overtly Islamic policies before the next elections. Its leadership will be mindful that while it picked up 41 per cent of the vote, the other 59 per cent did not prioritise religion ahead of secular governance.

“Ennahda are constrained by their partners in the coalition and ultimately they have to look forward to a year from now and get re-elected in the parliamentary and presidential elections,” says Richard Cochrane, Middle East and North Africa analyst at US consultancy IHS Global Insight. “If they attempted to introduce a conservative religious agenda in their first year that would go down very badly in Tunisia. It has a secular civil tradition. It is an Islamic country, but since independence and even before that it was secular.”

Jebali has said the party will look to promote a business-friendly agenda and open the economy further to North African and European markets and those of the Gulf. Ennahda has also said it will not alter laws protecting women’s rights or enforce sharia-compliant banking services.

Economic challenge for Tunisia

The big challenge will be addressing the economic disparities between the coastal areas and the interior of the country. Central Tunisia is severely underdeveloped after being deprived of investment for decades. It is no coincidence that the uprising began in Sidi Bouzid, a drab town in the interior of the country. Unemployment is far higher in central areas than on the eastern coast, where some 75 per cent of non-agricultural jobs are concentrated. At the end of 2010, unemployment in central Tunisia was more than 18 per cent, while in coastal regions it averaged 9 per cent. Meanwhile, joblessness among 20-24 year olds was 27.5 per cent and among graduates it was about 23.3 per cent.

This trial run at governance has both its advantages and disadvantages for Tunisia. Under the watchful gaze of the public, Jebali will want to be seen as a man of action, but the danger is that this could lead to short-term populist policies that leave a long-lasting economic burden.

The 2012 budget that was drawn up by the interim authorities and approved by the new government in late December includes a commitment to creating 20,000 new public sector jobs over the next year. This together with salary increases will result in a 12 per cent rise in the state wage bill on 2011 and will mean 37.7 per cent of the budget will go to paying salaries.

To complement this, the prime minister has announced plans to sell off several of Ben Ali’s presidential palaces, with the proceeds to go into a job creation scheme, as well as accelerating the sale of confiscated property. He has also spoken of promoting microfinance and encouraging small-to-medium-sized businesses. But whether the government can make an impact tangible to the average person on the street in less than 18 months remains to be seen.

“The people on the streets are waiting for results and are beginning to get impatient,” says Cochrane. “A lot of anger is being directed against public services. The situation in the interior of the country is the same, if not worse than it was a year ago. [The coalition] has some good will to draw on, but that good will is fading. It is has taken much longer than anticipated to form the government.”

Power sharing

At the same time, the two other parties in the power-sharing government are seeking to build on their position. Already Marzouki has set himself up as an active and outspoken figurehead for Tunisia. The charismatic president, who was also imprisoned under the Ben Ali regime, is in constant conversation with the media.

Meanwhile, the fragmented opposition have begun talks to form a progressive centre-left party to act as strong counterweight to the coalition government.

A further 27 parties are represented in the assembly and they complain of feeling voiceless when it comes to forming policy. Previous attempts to unify the opposition in April and October failed, but following the election results, the various groups now recognise the power of a strong alliance.

One year on from the revolution, campaigning for the next elections is already under way. The danger is that this will distract the politicians from resolving the pressing issues of the day. This includes writing a new constitution that reflects the goals of the revolution and is representative of the will of the entire population, and improving the social and economic conditions for ordinary citizens.

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