Passers-by in the bazaar of Tunis

Political situation Power struggles are endangering democratisation process

The revolution in 2011 offered Tunisia the opportunity to become a democratic country governed by the rule of law. However, Tunisia's peaceful transition is under threat from an unstable party system; power struggles between president, government and parliament; deficits in building state institutions; a tense security situation and an ongoing economic crisis.

The frequent government reshuffles in recent years have led to important decisions being postponed. Essential economic policy and social reforms are being implemented only slowly.

In July 2021, the political situation reached a critical point. Following nationwide protests about government policies and its management of the COVID-19 crisis, State President Saied took over the running of the government and the office of Attorney-General by decree. He suspended parliament and started to govern the country on the basis of special powers.

In late July 2022, a new constitution was introduced by referendum which has accelerated the transition from a parliamentary to a hyper-presidential system, further disempowering the parliament. The country has since been in a state of upheaval. It is currently impossible to predict what the future holds for Tunisia's process of democratisation.

High levels of public debt

One particular challenge is the country's tight budget situation. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Tunisia's public debt had reached worrying levels. The additional expenditure made necessary by the COVID-19 crisis (social benefits and support programmes for the private sector, for instance), a drop in tax revenues and poor management of spending have sent public debt soaring to 90 per cent of the country's gross domestic product. A very significant expenditure item are public service salaries. They account for about 40 per cent of the national budget.

A state of emergency

In 2015 Tunisia suffered several terrorist attacks. Since then, the country has been in a state of emergency. This has given the security forces extra powers and provides for the possibility of imposing restrictions of fundamental rights such as the freedom of assembly. Because Tunisia's healthcare system was on the point of collapse as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, State President Saied in July 2021 extended the state of emergency by a further six months, until January 2022.

Background: Political new beginning in 2011

After gaining independence in 1956, Tunisia was ruled autocratically for over five decades: by Habib Bourgiba from 1957 to 1987, and then by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

In the winter of 2010/2011, mass protests erupted against the corrupt regime and against social inequality and high levels of youth unemployment. In January 2011, President Ben Ali and his family left the country; he died in exile in Saudi Arabia in 2019.

After the toppling of the long-standing ruler some initial important steps were taken to put the country on a path towards democracy and the rule of law. International observers described the elections to the constituent assembly held in 2011, the first municipal elections in 2018 and the parliamentary and presidential elections held in 2014 and 2019 as free, fair and transparent. In 2014, a new constitution was adopted. Freedom of the press and freedom of opinion, which were previously severely curtailed, are largely being upheld.

Several new political parties and civil society organisations have been set up.

The growing autocratisation under the acting President Kaies Saied, however, is increasingly jeopardising the democratic progress Tunisia has made. The new electoral law of September 2022 has ended the party-based political representation in the parliament by replacing it with a majority voting system without lists. Many big parties boycotted the last election on 17 December 2022 which saw a historically low voter turnout of eleven per cent. As the new constitution leaves little power and oversight to the parliament, it will have little influence in the future.

As at: 28/03/2023