It was a chance conversation at a petrol station which convinced Kais Saïed to run for President. And this month, he won those elections with almost 73% of the vote.
Saïed became a familiar face to Tunisians while the country’s Constituent Assembly wrote its new Constitution, a process it finished in 2014. He had been a member of an expert committee invited to comment on the draft Constitution. He was often on TV sharing his views. However, as one of the young members of his electoral campaign explained to me in September, Saïed’s decision to run for President came from an unexpected conversation while buying petrol with another citizen. This man complained that since the Constitution had been agreed, Saïed had withdrawn from public life, but people wanted him to return.
Kais Saïed won the presidency as an outsider with no party. He attracted voters from across the political spectrum, but importantly, he achieved a mandate from Tunisia’s youth, whose participation in recent elections had been disappointingly low.
A law professor known for his independence of mind, Saïed shunned a traditional campaign. Choosing to walk through every constituency, discussing Tunisians’ everyday problems, he offered a new approach.
Young activists who had been at the forefront of the 2011 revolution but felt marginalised by a political transition that hadn’t brought meaningful change to their lives, gravitated to him. A core group became the engine behind his unconventional campaign, using Facebook, bloggers and social networks to mobilise young people to vote.
Tunisia has received praise for its political transition since 2011. In 2014 a broad tent coalition government brought together political forces from secular and religious backgrounds to share government. Their consensus approach, which avoided the chaos that other countries in their region had suffered since the 2011 uprisings, rested upon the realisation that winning 51% at the ballot box wasn’t a mandate to rule. Effective government needed the buy-in of other political forces and stakeholders in the country in order to promote stability and reform. Tunisia’s leaders developed a mechanism of consensual legitimacy as a compliment to electoral legitimacy.
However, there is a recognition that Tunisia has largely failed in its economic transition. When I visited during the first round of the elections last month, Tunisians were using the right they had won to vote to voice their frustration and send a message that change was needed urgently.
Everything is local
Tunisia’s geographic divides, between wealthy coastal regions, and an under-developed interior were key factors in these elections. In Tunisia’s most deprived areas newly elected politicians describe the failure of the state to provide basic services. For example, in Kairouan, in central Tunisia, healthcare is sparse, with some hospitals open as little as one day a week. Communities go without safe drinking water. Illiteracy rates are too high, local politicians say, and young people want to leave - migration being the preferred option and suicide a deeply worrying one.
Local agriculturists and farmers complain that their produce doesn’t get fair prices. Olive oil producers complain their olives leave their farms in trucks, are then processed into oil in factories away from the province, then bottled in European olive oil bottles and sold without recognition of their Tunisian origin.
Young people struggle to start their own businesses because access to finance is difficult. They are too often unable to get loans as a result of conditions in the domestic banking sector that requires collateral they cannot afford.
Tunisia’s 2019 elections were therefore not only about the geographical divides in the country, but also a generational divide in which young people feel there are few opportunities for them to get on in life.
When Kais Saïed speaks of his priority to find local solutions to local problems, he is tapping into this sentiment. And, when he says that Tunisians know their needs and how to address them if given the opportunity, he is reflecting what many feel, and is speaking to their sense of disempowerment.
The elections not only brought a new president to power, but also a new parliament. Of the 217 elected members of the Tunisian parliament, a staggering 165, or over 75%, of them are new. Several parties that were successful in 2014 elections suffered heavily in the recent elections. Nidaa Tounes, for example, which won the 2014 elections with 86 seats, now have 3 seats. Ennahda, are now the largest party with 52 seats, but down from 69 seats in 2014.
Several new political parties emerged from across the political spectrum including Qalb Tounes and the Dignity Coalition, which won 59 seats between them. Following a trend from the 2018 local elections, independent candidates did well, winning 12 seats. A further 13 parties won 25 seats between them.
As one parliamentarian explained to me, Tunisians were “fed up” with the last parliament and government, and with a bad economy impacting livelihoods, they voted with their stomachs.
Forming a coalition government backed by a parliamentary majority with such a splintered parliament will not be straightforward, but not impossible either, if the country’s new politicians can find sufficient consensus between them. However, should they fail, further parliamentary elections in 2020 would mean the loss of valuable time to address Tunisia’s economic challenges, tackle corruption, and embark on major reforms.
Inspired by the election results a series of spontaneous community clean-up initiatives have taken place since 13th October. Spearheaded by youth activists, they drew in support from other community organisations. They indicate the kind of optimism for change and local renewal that have been such a force in these elections.
What Can European Countries Do?
This spirit should also translate into the kind of assistance and support Europe and other countries provide to Tunisia.
Tunisian politicians are concerned about the new parliament in which over 75% are new members with little to no previous experience of governance. New political parties could benefit from sharing in the learning from experiences of others around the world in how to navigate the challenges of party politics and broad coalition governments.
Tunisia’s next government may well prioritise initiatives that are locally driven. Economic assistance should look to reinforce links between central and local government and institutions, and support government in its efforts to ensure economic reform resonates locally.
Tunisia is in an unstable neighbourhood with conflict and instability all around, and vulnerable to pressures beyond its borders. Despite a further successful electoral cycle, now is not the time to assume that Tunisia’s transition is over. Expectation in Tunisian is high, especially among young people who are the majority. As one Tunisian politician remarked to me, it’s worth remembering investing in democracy is cheaper than intervention.