Democracy will be the loser of Tunisia’s presidential election

Political apathy among Tunisian voters is fuelling dangerous populism.

Tunisian election
Supporters of presidential candidate Nabil Karoui take part in a rally in front of the courthouse asking for his release from prison in Tunis, Tunisia, September 3, 2019 [Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters]

Tunisians will head to the polls on September 15 to elect a new president in the second such vote since the country’s 2011 revolution. The upcoming election, however, is unlikely to cure the Tunisian population’s growing sense of disenchantment with the democratic process.

In the eight years since the end of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali‘s authoritarian rule, Tunisia has achieved several democratic milestones, including the election of a constituent assembly, the drafting of a new constitution, and the organisation of several successful general and local elections. However, all these achievements have been overshadowed by growing concerns over ideological polarisation, insecurity, terrorism, and a severe economic crisis.

Despite the efforts of successive governments, in recent years Tunisia’s national debt has reached 70 percent of the national GDP, inflation has risen to 6.7 percent, and the official unemployment rate has remained high, at 15.5 percent, reaching as much as 30 percent in the country’s interior.

Meanwhile, repeated terror attacks on popular tourist destinations have devastated the all-important tourism sector, causing further deterioration of the country’s already struggling economy. The drastic austerity measures that have been adopted by the Tunisia central banks and other government financial institutions have increased economic pressure on ordinary people and have fed into their resentment of the political elite.

As a result, Tunisians, whose mass mobilisation against unemployment and poverty set off the Arab Spring and inspired revolutionary and democratic change across the region less than a decade ago, have gradually become more and more disillusioned with the democratic process and its ability to resolve their most pressing socioeconomic problems.

2018 Afrobarometer survey found that only 46 percent of Tunisians believe that democracy is the most preferable form of government, down from 70 percent in 2013. And, perhaps more tellingly, the turnout of the last vote in 2018 in which Tunisians elected freely city mayors for the first time in their recent history, was remarkably low – at 36 percent. By comparison, the first post-revolution parliamentary election drew some 69 percent of the voters to the polls.

By all indications, this Sunday’s presidential election is only going to increase the Tunisian population’s alienation from the electoral process.

Twenty-six candidates, including a number of prominent figures, are running for president. Among them are Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui and Abdelfattah Mourou, the presidential candidate of the Islamist Ennahdha party.

Nevertheless, none of these candidates appears competent, experienced and trustworthy enough to reignite the flame of democracy in Tunisia and deliver much-awaited social and economic reforms that would solve the country’s many enduring problems.

Most of them made their personality, rather than their political and economic programmes, the focus of their presidential campaigns.

During the highly-anticipated presidential debates, which were broadcast on national TV and watched by more than three million Tunisians, most of the candidates talked about themselves rather than their policy plans and struggled to answer even the most basic and predictable questions on national security, foreign relations and political policy reform.

The bad performance of the majority of the candidates and their failure to convince the viewers that they are prepared for the job caused the population to lose interest in the presidential election even more. Many Tunisians expressed their disappointment at the debates by taking to social media to poke fun at the candidates.

Analysts are already predicting low voter turnout on Sunday which could play into the hands of Nabil Karoui, a 56-year-old media tycoon who is running on a right-wing populist platform. He has managed to present himself as an anti-establishment strongman who can deliver change and improve the lives of ordinary Tunisians. He opposes the abolition of capital punishment, gender equality in inheritance, and calls for the amendment of the constitution to give more power to the elected president.

Karoui, who is the owner Nessma TV channel, was arrested three weeks ago on suspicion of tax evasion and money laundering. His party, Qalb Tounes (the Heart of Tunisia), claim that his arrest was politically motivated.

Although he lacks any political experience and had to campaign remotely from a prison cell, he is leading in the polls and given the widespread rejection of the Islamist and secularist camps that have so far dominated the political debates in the country, he actually stands a chance of becoming Tunisia’s next president.

He is popular not because he has presented a detailed economic plan to save the country from the ongoing crisis and improve the lives of ordinary people, but because he has cultivated the image of a successful businessman and generous philanthropist who dedicates much of his time to charity work through his Khalil Tounes Foundation and by giving away fridges and televisions on his TV channel.

He did not participate in any presidential debates and it is still unclear whether he will be released from prison if he makes it to the runoff. Since Thursday he has been on hunger strike demanding to be allowed to vote in Sunday’s election and on Friday, he was denied release from prison after an appeal was again turned down.

The popularity of Karoui is the result of the frustration of the Tunisian people with what they see as the failed politics of the mainstream parties which regularly engage in meaningless ideological quarrels instead of fixing high unemployment levels, inflation and insecurity. For many Tunisians, the moral integrity of politicians no longer seems important; many believe that “all politicians are frauds anyway”.

This discouraged attitude towards politics has resulted not only in the rise of populism but also in the gradual deterioration of the Tunisian democracy itself. While many Tunisians are happy that their country has fared better than other Arab Spring states, there is a growing conviction among them that their democracy in its present form is not working. An increasing number of them believe that putting stability above personal freedoms and opting for a more authoritative government could resolve the pressing problems Tunisia is facing today.

This state of political cynicism and discontent is leading to gradual disengagement from the democratic process, which the upcoming election will likely register.

Given the inability of the Tunisian political elite to provide for the needs of the people and mobilise them politically, it is unlikely to find a solution to the growing sense of disenchantment among Tunisians any time soon. Restoring faith in the tenets of a healthy democracy such as good governance, accountability, and transparency seems for now to be a distant dream.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.