Tunisian political views: splintered and confused

Combined with fractured views about political systems, voter indifference is not what Tunisia needs today.

As many countries around the world head for elections this year, surveys show the democratic ideal to be very much alive in most nations while scepticism is also growing about the way political systems have evolved.

In the Arab region, democracy building remains as elusive as ever, twelve years after the “Arab spring” upheaval.

Tunisia, which will hold presidential elections next autumn, has a few lessons to offer to the outside world in this regard.

A recent poll by the Arab Barometer, shows that the most pertinent of these lessons may be those drawn by Tunisians themselves about their country’s past political transition and what democracy has to offer to them in the future.

The Tunisians’ take on the post-2011 phase of their history is quite different from the West’s idealised account of the “jasmine revolution,” a narrative often told with overtones of disappointment and frustration. The process followed since 2011 seems to have instilled in Tunisians contrasting and somehow confused visions of how they should be governed and what democratic practice means for them.

Their twelve-year experience has not entrenched their commitment to democracy but has not however totally shaken their belief in the “democratic option”.  In fact, “eight-in-ten affirm that despite its problems, democracy is their preferred political system” while 55 percent reject authoritarianism, the poll tells us.

But most Tunisians see “clear limitations” to democracy. Accordingly, 73 percent “agree” or “strongly agree” that the “economy is weak under democracy” compared to a mere 17 percent who used to feel that way in 2011. Also, 73 percent believe democracy is “indecisive,” a huge increase of that viewpoint compared with only 19 percent more than a decade ago.

The rise in scepticism about democracy is clearly the reflection of failed expectations from the successive governments during “the democratic transition” set in motion after 2011. Ineptitude and endless sniping led to political instability and economic decline while promises rang hollow.

Learning from their past disappointment, Tunisians insist today that while guaranteeing them the freedom to choose their leaders, democracy must grant them the basic services they need among the prerequisites of dignified life.

This perspective explains Tunisians’ assessment of the democratic progress accomplished so far.  If 54 percent find the country more democratic than it used to be before 2011, a total of 46 percent says democratic practice is “less” or at the same level than it used to be under Ben Ali.

This also seems to shape Tunisians’ views about foreign democratic models.

For the majority, best democratic practices find their illustration not in the US or Britain but by in Germany and China.

This perspective, which was missed by much of the political elite for more than ten years after 2011, is likely to shape voters choices for years to come.

The Arab Barometer notes that Tunisians “do not appear to share a common vision for their political future”. More than that, the poll shows that Tunisians’ political vision is in fact splintered and confused, especially when it comes to the political system they feel suits their country best.

No less than 51 percent deem a pluralistic parliamentary system “not suitable” for the country. In fact, only 48 percent would pick such a system. This percentage is ironically comparable to the 44 percent who, at the opposite end of the spectrum, favour a “strong authority”, which would make decisions without considering electoral results nor the views of the opposition.

Then, there is the even more problematic religion-politics nexus. Two-thirds of Tunisians reject “Sharia”(Islamic law)-based rule. Still it is worrying that no less than 37 percent of the public find this kind of rule “suitable”, “somewhat suitable” or “very suitable” for their country.

This is probably one of the most debatable findings of the research. Polling Muslims respondents on Islam-related issues is always tricky. Polling them on Islamic politics is even trickier.  Compliance with “Sharia”, despite its negative connotation in the West, means for many the mere compliance with the faith and not adherence to the harsh interpretation of Islam advocated by Salafists.

As crucial as it might be, ascertaining what is meant by “Sharia”-based rule is not a methodologically easy task.  As the atrophy of Ennahda’s support base in recent years shows, religious sentiment does not always translate into Islamist sympathies in the context of a politically competitive system.

Beyond these features, the poll’s findings point to potential areas of concern regarding Tunisia’s future governance.

First, divisions do not bode well for the building of consensus in a country where the ongoing economic crisis might require a widely-shared adherence by the public to tough decisions, which might need to be taken by the government down the road.

Second, the poll’s figures show a growing disaffection with politics. Only 24 percent of Tunisians say they are interested in public life. Even greater ratios of disengagement from the political process and public life are noted among young people and women.

Based on what successive governments since the fall of the Ben Ali regime have delivered (or more pertinently what they have not delivered) voters are predictably sceptical of government institutions, with the exception of the president, in whom they place a more than 70 percent level of trust.

In the short term, it remains to be seen how these opinion trends could affect the turnout in the forthcoming presidential election, next autumn. The low ratio of participation in legislative polls last year has already delivered ample warning to all political actors. Combined with fractured views about political systems, voter indifference is not what Tunisia needs today.

The original article was published on The Arab Weekly.

Oussama Romdhani is the former Tunisian communications minister and the chief editor of the Arab Weekly. The views expressed in this piece are his own.