Tunisia protests could be a preview of upcoming elections

Tunisia protests could be a preview of upcoming elections

Tunisia will hold its first municipal elections since the Arab Spring in May. Ahead of the polls, deep divisions and socio-economic problems continue to affect the country.

Tunisians will head to the polls on 6 May to vote in the first elections since the uprisings of the Arab Spring. This will be a test of the resilience of Tunisia’s political transition after the implementation of a new constitution in 2014 and the policies implemented by the coalition government led by Youssef Chahed. Successive governments have struggled to enact fiscal reforms and stabilise the country’s security environment since 2011. Enduring economic problems and slow growth have led to an increase in unemployment-related demonstrations and eroded public trust in state institutions. The risk of Islamist militant violence also remains high and threatens to spill over the Libya and Algeria borders.

The governing coalition’s mixed record

Since his nomination, Chahed has embarked on a series of reforms aimed at improving Tunisia’s economic outlook and declared a “war on corruption”. Anti-corruption campaigns that began in May 2017 have resulted in the arrest of prominent businessmen, civil servants and politicians. The arrest of several smuggling barons, including businessman Chafik Jarraya (who financed the Prime Minister’s Nidaa Tounes party) was seen as a step towards greater transparency and re-establishing voters’ trust in Tunisia’s political institutions.

Several decisions have nonetheless eroded the government’s popularity. The Prime Minister’s decision to grant pardon to state officials involved in corruption during Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship has sparked criticism among opposition parliamentarians. A controversial Cabinet reshuffle in September last year also saw the nomination of three ministers who served under Ben Ali and the sidelining of the Islamist Ennahda party within the coalition government. Multiple postponements of the local elections signalled the executive’s lack of preparation and are contributing to the government’s declining popularity. A poll conducted in August 2017 revealed that the president and the PM’s approval ratings stand at below 20 percent.

Economic pressure and the risk of social unrest

The government has implemented a series of economic reforms to reduce the deficit, which it predicts could fall to 4.9 percent of the GDP, down from 6 percent in 2016. Tunisia faces pressure from the IMF, to accelerate the pace of economic reforms and must balance external pressures with public discontent at home, where austerity measures are controversial. The IMF’s decision to delay the payment of a tranche of its US$2.6 billion loan in 2017 showed Tunisia’s economic vulnerability. In December, Parliament approved the 2018 draft budget law, which includes plans to raise VAT and slash public sector jobs.

Tunisians’ response to budget cuts can be volatile. With high youth unemployment and sluggish growth, the first months of the year could bring renewed public protests. UGTT, Tunisia’s most powerful union, has a record of overturning economic reforms such as freezes to public sector jobs and is likely to oppose freezes to public sector cuts and reductions in subsidies. The divide between cities and marginalised rural areas makes protest most likely in the country’s southern and eastern regions, with the oil and gas sector at the forefront of job protests. Demonstrations are a regular occurrence throughout the countries, and over 4,000 public protests were recorded last year.

Price hikes have already sparked fresh protests in the impoverished city of Kasserine. In the short term, the government’s reaction will determine whether the demonstrations turn into broader protests. Even if the current protests abate, sporadic demonstrations are likely to happen in the next few weeks and could intensify in the run-up to the vote, making the situation politically volatile. The city of Sidi Bouzid, where protests took place on 9 January, was also the epicentre of the Tunisian  Revolution in 2011.

Tunisia’s volatile security environment

Tunisia’s tourist industry has suffered from the string of attacks that hit the country in 2015, including the shooting in the tourist resort of Sousse in June 2015 and the attack on the Bardo museum in Tunisia. Last year has seen an increase in tourism revenues, up 19 percent compared with 2016. Tour operators including Thomas Cook announced their intention to resume activities in Tunisia in February this year after the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) revised its travel advice for British tourists. The Tunisian government is hoping that tourism from Europe will continue to increase and fuel a growth in revenues.

Tunisia’s security environment has stabilised since 2015 but the threat posed by Islamist militancy remains substantial. The risk of cross-border militancy increases as the Islamic State (IS) loses ground in Libya. Al-Qaeda affiliated groups that operate in Algeria have also made the border with Tunisia vulnerable to attacks. A recently foiled attack on Tunisia’s Parliament illustrates the persistent risk of terror attacks, including low tech plots carried out by individual militants.

The significance of the elections

Tunisia is often presented as a model of democratic transition in the region, in contrast to Libya’s political instability and Egypt’s autocratic governance. Free elections are a central part of Tunisia’s credibility as a democracy. A further delay of the vote is unlikely and would further undermine Tunisians’ trust in state institutions. The vote will test the success of Tunisia’s political transition and will allow gauging the national mood ahead of the 2019 national polls. Two-thirds of Tunisians boycotted the 2014 legislative and presidential elections and abstention is likely to be high in the upcoming polls.

The secularist-Islamist alliance in power has lost its popularity over the last three years. The secularist Nidaa Tounes and the Islamist Ennahda party’s differences were laid bare at multiple occasions, including during the vote of the controversial Reconciliation Law. While the alliance between the two parties is likely to hold in the short term, the 2019 elections could reshape Tunisia’s political landscape.

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