Systemic reforms, not elections, key to Tunisia’s revival

As Tunisia heads towards a monumental election planned for October this year, the next few months hold profound implications, not just for the trajectory of the North African country’s quixotic “democracy,” but also for the lived realities of Tunisians. After three tumultuous years under President Kais Saied’s hyper-presidency, will Tunisians deliver a deafening indictment of their stolen aspirations or a whimpering capitulation to the status quo?

Tunisians have been increasingly tuning out of politics, a trend that has bolstered Saied’s approach of consolidating power in the presidency. This political disengagement can be traced back to a series of chaotic, even puerile, legislative embarrassments that completely eroded faith in democratic processes. From 2019 to 2021, the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, rather than being a beacon of nascent democracy, morphed into an arena of constant turmoil. The actions of two entities, the Free Destourian Party and the Dignity Coalition, which wielded a combined force of 38 seats in a 217-member assembly, prioritized spectacle over substance. Their verbal and physical altercations coined the phase “bordelization” – making a big mess.

This theatrical brawling, publicly broadcast and widely discussed, became a visual metaphor for dysfunction and a lived experience of political failure for many Tunisians. With representatives initiating brawls and physical assaults at Bardo Palace, public trust dwindled. Saied’s ascendance against this backdrop was more than assured. His campaign, predicated on anti-corruption and anti-system rhetoric, appealed directly to a populace exhausted by a parliament that seemed more a circus than a sanctuary of democratic practice. His early actions in office, notably the suspension of parliament in July 2021, were met with relief and celebration, not trepidation.

However, interventions initially perceived as temporary measures against disorder began to ossify into permanence. This pivot did not occur in isolation; it was facilitated by an absence of viable alternatives offering both the promise of stability and a genuine commitment to tackling Tunisia’s economic and social crises systematically.

As a result, political disengagement in Tunisia stems partly from a recognition of a barren political field, in which leaders capable of addressing problems such as economic instability, public health, and corruption seem mythological rather than credible electoral choices. This pervasive disillusionment has become embedded in the country’s political DNA, shaping expectations and conceptions of governance amid the ruins of what was once a hopeful democracy.

At the heart of Tunisia’s electoral malaise is a deep-seated belief among the citizenry that, regardless of who resides in Carthage Palace or what promises are made by aspiring populists, no one can deliver the changes so desperately needed. For many, the aspirations of the Jasmine Revolution now feel like distant memories, supplanted by the reality of economic stagnation and warped political discourse.

The more insidious and perhaps more enduring challenge to Tunisia’s democratic experiment is the creeping sense of temporary apathy turning into a more permanent disengagement among citizens. This is not simply a symptom of political fatigue; it is a rational response to a system perceived as fundamentally unresponsive to the needs and aspirations of a people hungry for change. Thus, the official narratives framing electoral participation as the hallmark of democratic legitimacy ring hollow to people who have seen little material improvement in their day-to-day lives since 2011.

Considering these dynamics, the call to Western democracies is clear: The emphasis on the ballot box as the panacea for Tunisia’s woes is misplaced. While free and fair elections are a cornerstone of any democracy, they cannot in themselves rectify the deep-seated issues facing Tunisian society. The focus of international support should pivot towards encouraging and enabling the more arduous but essential process of real systemic reform.

Crucial areas ripe for reform include judicial independence to ensure that the rule of law prevails over political expediency or interference. Strengthening courts would safeguard human rights and bolster investor confidence, a key component for economic revival. Moreover, enhancing the transparency and accountability of public institutions can reconstruct the eroded trust between the state and its citizens. By supporting initiatives aimed at fostering good governance practices, Western allies can contribute to cultivating a political climate that values ​​transparency over opacity.

Likewise, economic policies should pivot from austerity measures to sustainable development strategies prioritizing youth employment, technological innovation, and renewables. These strategies address the country’s immediate needs and lay the foundations for its long-term prosperity. For Tunisia, aspirational ideals for political pluralism must energize the initiation and implementation of genuine reforms to help the country steer clear of short-term fixes in favor of lasting stability and growth. Promoting overdue reforms will fare much better than relying on dubious electoral processes in a repressive environment that prefers the status quo.

True progress lies not in the vain hope of disparate electoral outcomes within a flawed system, but in the vigorous pursuit of reforms designed to tackle the core challenges facing Tunisian society today. Reform, not the ballot box, is the cure for Tunisia’s woes. Only by addressing the systemic issues plaguing the country can Tunisia hope to realize the dreams of the Jasmine Revolution and secure a stable and prosperous future for its citizens.

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