What next for Tunisia?

Every autocrat loves performative elections since they know they will win them, of course, one way or another.

Unfortunately, this passion for theatrics collides with an aversion to the uncertainty that is typical of inviting the public to voice its conscience via the ballot box.

It is therefore necessary for even the most autocratic regimes to set the stage in such a way that teases an element of opposition, while also ensuring any “opponents” have little or no chance of gaining a foothold, much less mounting a credible challenge to their leadership.

Such are the dynamics now dominating Tunisian politics ahead of next month’s elections, as a Kais Saied “hyper-presidency” begins angling for that bittersweet spot between the illusion of transparency or openness, and the harsh reality of its total usurpation of the North African country’s once bright aspirations.

The odds are that Saied will succeed in using his “invisible hands” to steer the result of December’s polls to his liking and bolster an embattled regime inundated by protests, shortages, woeful public finances and pending mass layoffs under the biting chill of looming austerity measures mandated by the International Monetary Fund.

These are not baseless assertions or alarmist hyperbole, given how the Saied era so far has leaned heavily on a kind of constitutional authoritarian populism to concentrate power in an unaccountable executive.

A few months after a controversial referendum this summer, the regime quickly set about modifying electoral rules such that Tunisia will never again hold free and fair elections.

By applying a constitutional veneer to a power grab, a Sept. 15 election law set the terms of the December polls, which are likely to be very inconsequential in terms of providing the opposition with an opportunity to register its dissent and shift the balance of power.

Curiously, the September revision of the highly touted 2014 constitution only deals with the legislative elections for the Assembly of People’s Representatives and not the second chamber, the National Assembly of Regions and Provinces — hinting at Saied’s usual style of decree by trial and error.

It betrays a somewhat obvious conclusion that even after his power grab, the president still lacks a clear, coherent vision of exactly what kind of government he wants and how it will set about fulfilling his populist promises.

What is clear, however, is a palpable disdain for political parties, given that the so-called People’s Representatives will have much less power than in previous assemblies.

The two legislative chambers will neither be able to wield any influence over the executive branch through the appointment of a prime minister, nor will they be able to check a presidency that is too far gone and unafraid to resort to pseudo-laws and decrees to exert its will.

In short, the government is basically accountable to the presidency, repealing the legislative branch’s oversight capacities and turning the assemblies into mere rubber stamps for a hyper-presidency that is wholly assured of its mastery of legalese and constitutional quackery.

None of it has been, nor will be, about protecting people or uprooting the malign elements or influences that deadlocked Tunisia’s previous parliament.

All of this maneuvering has only gone toward promoting the vaunted idealism of a well-functioning third republic that is only decipherable by the president himself and, perhaps, some of his inner circle.

A few others will likely praise Tunisia’s confusing trajectory into the unknown, as new patronage and corporatist networks emerge that curry favor with the regime, while recently empowered constituencies gain additional capacities as allegiances form along tribal lines.

The jury is still out on whether there is any wisdom in betting on the possibility of future public outcry or mass dissent from within the pro-regime ranks coming from multiple directions.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

On the other hand, criticisms will mount of how the new law will benefit wealthy candidates as a result of the barriers to candidacy it has erected, such as requiring hundreds of endorsements from voters within a district and allowing only private, self-financing political campaigns. Women will also be less represented in the parliament due to the elimination of gender-parity rules on how candidates are selected.

Not surprisingly, the opposition has elected simply to boycott the December polls, not least because of a reluctance to kowtow to the power-hungry designs in Saied’s demolition and reconstruction of Tunisia’s formal political mechanisms.

After all, the country’s opposition remains fragmented, unable to organize around a singular, convincing anti-Saied platform and capitalize on support from an emaciated middle class that has long since checked out of politics in favor of scrounging for basic commodities.

Some have even gone the extra mile to arrange for relatives to brave the Mediterranean waters in search of more promising shores, even though boatloads of desperate migrants have become political spectacles as their passengers are continuously scapegoated for the persistent ills at home before they even set foot on land.

In such a climate, a sustained mobilization of a united opposition front will likely not survive until December, especially one that will have to include widely reviled elements that would sooner excuse the still thriving remnants of Ben Ali cronyism than implement much-needed reforms that would pull Tunisia back from the brink.

Besides, even if by some miracle the opposition managed to dominate the assemblies, at some point the regime would simply demand it sign off on draconian legislation to silence dissent or criticism of the presidency.

Thus, perhaps the opposition’s self-neutering boycott is a risky gamble that will depend on either the effects of the runaway economic crisis, a looming showdown with Tunisia’s largest labor union, Union Generale Tunisienne du Travail, or both in order to blow up the president’s ambitions.

Bumbling efforts to tackle food and gas shortages through rationing have only earned the regime widespread scorn and ridicule, sparking protests so far relegated to the more impoverished areas of the country.

Meanwhile, IMF-mandated reforms of Tunisia’s state-owned enterprises have been met with threats of strikes by the general union, on which Saied is still dependent for tacit acquiescence to his constitutional authoritarian populism, should they entail painful austerity measures.

The jury is still out on whether there is any wisdom in betting on the possibility of future public outcry or mass dissent from within the pro-regime ranks coming from multiple directions, not excluding the security services that have so far carried out the regime’s bidding by stifling protests.

It is unlikely the security services will join the ranks of the opposition, preferring instead to angle for the appointment of senior military figures to Cabinet positions as recompense for police unions not calling for strikes.

It is a truly hopeless, maddening situation because, for all the warnings, threats and impassioned pleas, the Saied camp has forged on.

It remains unimpeded in its quest to rewrite Tunisia’s political future, skating by outbursts of apprehension that are mostly preoccupied with economic ills rather than political ones — and this does not bode well for whatever comes after the phony election in December.

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell

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