A Pyrrhic Victory? Addressing Expectations and Reality in the Wake of Tunisia’s Elections

Drew Holland Kinney

Tunisia’s anti-establishment president Kais Saied’s victory was a major signal that democracy is alive and well in the small North African country. Shocking the establishment, however, was not the only aspiration of the youth who catapulted the constitutional scholar into office. The populist outsider, who was sworn in on October 23, 2019, boosted expectations of a “second revolution,” including meaningful economic reforms that he is unlikely to deliver. The ironic but more likely scenario is that Tunisians will endure five more years of the status quo, but this time with higher-than-ever expectations. As a result, the “politics of frustration” could bring greater instability to the country’s young democratic institutions.

President Saied’s diagnosis of the country’s ills were accurate. Campaigning, however, is not governing. Saied’s decision to remain on the margins of Tunisian politics by foregoing a party organization could squander the moment. He now captains a weak executive, which appeared strong under the late Beji Caid Essebsi because the latter abused his powers. Essebsi, unlike Saied, had decades of political experience and his party, Nidaa Tounes, gained a hefty majority in the 2014 elections. 

Meanwhile, the Tunisian parliament will be as divided as ever. No party won more than 20% of the seats. The party that won the most seats, Ennahda, supported Saied’s bid against Karoui because of his social conservatism (and probably their distaste for Karoui), not because of his economic message. Nabil Karoui’s party, Qalb Tounes, took second place. Unless Karoui’s ambitions are satisfied, then his party can be expected to give Saied trouble—and is unlikely to align with Ennahda to build a stable governing coalition. While in normal circumstances a weak parliament might allow a popular president to run roughshod over constitutional procedure, Saied is a constitutional scholar who is bent on breaking the establishment’s corrupt disregard for the rule of law. 

None of this bodes well for Saied, whose signature message opposed the status quo. One must wonder if an expert like Essebsi could have even weathered the coming storm. 

This essay maps-out possibilities for Kais Saied’s next five years. While the majority of the essay makes the case that the prospects of sweeping change under Saied are slim, the final section lays out four tangible outcomes that Saied can easily achieve and that can address the expectation gap that his electoral victory has produced.

Democratic “process” and “outcome”

It is difficult to conceive of a case in which the rival definitions of democracy, “outcome” and “process,” are in starker contrast than in Tunisia. What the 2019 elections demonstrate convincingly is that Tunisia meets the process definition of democracy: there are regular elections, guaranteed by enough civil liberties for electoral contests to be considered free and fair. This has not produced more egalitarian outcomes, however, because Tunisia’s political democracy is the result of an elite pact, or what political scientists call a “negotiated democracy.” Elites, in essence, agreed to keep one another out of prison during the transition. This pact required that no segment of the political class push too hard for revolutionary demands for economic reform, such as curtailing economic corruption and patronage as well as development for the rural interior.

Tunisian politicians were armed with few-strings-attached IMF and World Bank loans explicitly designed to provide budgetary support, i.e., “fiscal buffers,” to a transition branded by the international community as the Arab world’s sole success story. Generally speaking, they used these funds to meet the demands of the Tunisian General Labour Union/Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT), while avoiding economic reforms that could upset business interests, like higher taxes or greater economic transparency and accountability. As a result, some observers noted the feeling among Tunisians that the upper class (unaffected by the state’s debt burden) used democracy to protect their interests while committing “generations to repaying an unrealistic debt.” Confirming their suspicions, the IMF wrote that Tunisia’s “large and growing…debts give rise to large financing needs and represent a strong burden for future generations.”

As a result, since 2011, words have not matched action on economic development for the marginalized interior region or on boosting youth employment, which is higher than it was before the revolution. Some funds have been earmarked for developing the marginalized rural interior (by taking on external debt), but as Larbi Sadiki writes, “While politicians pay lip service to regional development, the gap continues to widen between power holders’ declaratory policies and local communities’ expectations.” After the Troika’s 2012 budget increased spending (with help from World Bank loans), some of which went to the interior, ex-Finance Minister Houcine Dimassi resigned on grounds that the country’s politicians were merely taking on debt for electoral gain rather than getting serious about altering the economic status quo.

Bipartisanship is laudable when it benefits a broader public, but can also be self-serving and pathological. Cross-party support for the economic status quo (including turning a blind eye to corruption) has been a staple of Tunisia’s revolutionary diet. Some observers point to a “democratization of corruption” since the uprising in 2011. Tarek Kahlaoui notes, for instance, “an established economic elite from the Sahel (the eastern coastal region) and large urban centres is protected by and benefits from existing regulations,” while “entrepreneurs from marginalised regions” have practiced corruption in the informal economy. While Youssef Chahed’s May 2017 War on Corruption was broadly popular, some analysts suspected it amounted to a public relations stunt, meant for popular consumption instead of meaningful reform. Chahed’s anti-corruption drive found little support among the established political elite; both Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes only warily backed it due to its popularity among the Tunisian masses.

The urgency for addressing these flaws is clear to observers who nervously watched media mogul Nabil Karoui’s rise in the polls. Karoui is not simply styled like Italian autocrat Silvio Berlusconi; the latter co-owned (until recently) Nessma TV, which Karoui uses for partisan propaganda. Rather than viewing Saied’s defeat of Karoui as a major achievement for Tunisian democracy, we might concede that it merely avoided a setback. The fact that he qualified for the presidential run-off (while in prison) should give observers some pause. (If Hillary Clinton had pulled off a victory in 2016, no one would have dismissed the fact that Donald Trump won the GOP nomination.) Although he ran on an anti-establishment message, Karoui is part of the establishment as a co-founder of Nidaa Tounes and an active participant in the system’s corruption. In this sense, Saied has not yet beaten Karoui because he has not yet taken on the establishment from inside the halls of power. 

Parliament and the Saied Presidency

Kais Saied’s anti-corruption and anti-establishment message resonated with Tunisia’s youth—especially since it was coming from one of the country’s few squeaky clean politicians. The Ennahda-supported constitutional law professor won 73% of the vote, while Karoui won only 27%. Saied’s campaign was clean; he did not rely on a lot of advertisements or external funding—something Tunisians appreciated alongside his anti-corruption rhetoric. Also impressively, Saied did not campaign before the run-off because Karoui could have then appealed the election results (on sound legal footing) for his inability to campaign while in jail. It is a net positive that Karoui did not win the election, but that is a low bar.

The irony in all of this is that the populist message that propelled Saied to power could threaten to undo his presidency. His rhetoric alone is not enough to produce change; he needs a party organization to enact serious reform—a task already complicated by what could be a hung parliament. Saied’s emergence falls around a year and a half after Nidaa Tounes ended its pact with Ennahda. Elite conflict has become more confrontational and could become even worse under Saied. Thus Saied’s attacks on status quo elites put establishment inertia on trial and is therefore likely to produce greater elite conflict—without the reform to make it all easier for Tunisians to swallow. 

These troubles might be an acceptable price tag of must needed reform, but it is unclear a novice like Saied understands what enacting such reform exacts. This is evidenced by his unwillingness or inability to build a party organization to fully realize his ideas. (His presidential opponent Nabil Karoui won 22 more seats in parliament than Saied, who competed for and won none.) It is therefore now a guarantee that Tunisia’s president will not match the party of the prime minister, “which will make addressing the country’s economic challenges, especially regional inequality, difficult.” While Saied’s conservative tendencies on social issues won him an Ennahda endorsement, Tunisians are less excited about social issues than they are about corruption and jobs. A Saied-Ennahda alliance would therefore have to tackle those issues to be truly meaningful. Yet rather than work to build an organization, Saied spins his independence as evidence that he remains above the fray. One could, however, just as easily claim that he is keeping himself outside of the fray—a fight in which he badly needs to engage beyond mere rhetoric.

The Tunisian president’s gamut is limited to foreign policy and defense, while parliament approves laws. To be sure, Saied’s image of a socially conservative, rigid old man fits well with the Tunisian president’s traditional role as the nation’s father figure. The powers of the presidency and parliament are not clearly defined—something Essebsi abused and Saied will almost certainly not. On one hand, Tunisians can sleep soundly knowing that the security establishment is in clean and capable hands. On the other hand, his limited scope and (likely) unwillingness to expand it will likely deliver five more years of more of the same to Tunisians, many of which have high expectations for a Kais Saied presidency. All of this could make his desire to restore faith in democracy ring hollow.

If Saied’s only source of power is executive agenda setting, then observers should be looking beyond the immediate satisfaction of his victory toward the potential for instability in the coming months; FDR-style mass mobilization against a parliament reticent to implement reforms will exacerbate elite conflict and create opportunities to spoilers of democracy to subvert young democratic institutions. This is especially important given that Tunisian elites have recently been troubled over allegations of foreign meddling—notably by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, two spoilers involved in Egypt’s July 2013 coup. Already in 2018, credible allegations of a UAE-backed coup plot involving Lofti Brahem surfaced.

Conclusion & Recommendations

If the main appeal of Kais Saied is a clean executive, then the prospect of five years under his watch is cause for Tunisians to celebrate. They have clearly signaled they do not wish to return to Ben Ali-style autocracy. If sending a message to the establishment was not the youth vote’s only aspiration then they may soon be disappointed in the populist outsider’s purported “second revolution.” If Tunisians are forced to endure five more years of stagnation and continued unemployment, then today’s celebrations will give way to the “politics of frustration,” inviting greater instability and opening the door to spoilers of the democratic process—including foreign powers like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have already demonstrated their commitment to undermining Tunisian democracy. President Saied must swiftly address the gap between the Tunisian political reality and the expectations that he has created. 

There are a number of steps that Saied can take immediately. First, it is not too late for Saied to establish a party. This will signal to parliamentarians that he is serious about expanding his institutional bases of support and his veto points, i.e., that he wants to sustain this moment by transforming it into a lasting movement that they cannot sidestep indefinitely. As well, Saied’s party could demonstrate support in rival MPs’s districts, signaling to them that they should get on board or lose their seat in the next election.

Second, Saied and his aides should be meeting with new members of parliament to reassure them that he wishes to establish a working relationship. He should try to get a sense of their interests and how far they are willing to push reforms. If he can convince a number of parties to make modest reforms while being mindful not to step on their toes, then he might be able to narrow the expectation gap. After all, some reform is better than none, and will reduce his detractors’s urge to paint him as a do-nothing president. 

Third, while he should make clear that he does not plan to be merely a figurehead, Saied should also tell Tunisian MPs that he will not verbally attack them or mobilize the street against them. At the same time, he should note that he reserves the right to expose them if they hold up even modest reforms. Third, Saied should more generally tone down his rhetoric to establish a more collegial relationship with parliament. Like them or not, his presidency (and possibly the country’s stability) depends on their cooperation. 

Fourth and finally, and probably the most easily attainable goal, Saied should recognize this moment as a major opportunity to create new democratic norms and transform the executive branch. He should immediately take measures to enhance executive transparency and accountability. Saied could also use his responsibilities over defense to strengthen democratic control over and increase transparency inside the security sector. These are tangible outcomes that he can point to when addressing those with high expectations for him when they voted him into office. He can use these actions instrumentally to narrow the expectation gap. Moreover, these measures will become part of his legacy—and could improve the lives of generations of Tunisians to come.

Drew Holland Kinney is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. For more about Drew and to read additional publications, please click here or follow him on Twitter (@drewhkinney). Observations in this article are partially based on the author’s trip to Tunisia in June 2019. The author wishes to thank the Tunis Exchange for making this trip possible.