Kais Saied Sets the Stage for Tunisia’s December 17 Elections

Autocrats love elections, so long as they know they will win them, of course. But because they have zero tolerance for uncertainty at the polls, autocratic regimes still work to set the stage in ways that might suggest an element of competition, all the while taking steps to ensure that their opponents have no real chance of securing an effective foothold in parliaments or other legislative bodies. In advance of Tunisia’s December 17 elections, Tunisian President Kais Saied and his allies are taking steps to reach this sweet (or perhaps bitter) spot between the appearance of openness and the reality of control.

At least for now, there is good reason to assume that Saied will prevail in shaping an electoral outcome to his liking. The country’s opposition remains split, while the wider population, including a depleted middle class, is consumed by the daily task of searching for basic commodities on the nearly empty shelves of local stores. These conditions do not favor the sustained mobilization of a united opposition front, especially one that includes the widely disliked Islamist-oriented Ennahda Party. Moreover, even if the opposition attained the miracle of a unified front backed by popular mobilization, there are no potential interlocuters close to Saied who might convince him to negotiate.

Still, if recent violent encounters between police and protesters—provoked in part by the death of a young protester in mid-October—continue or escalate, military or security leaders might choose to intervene. The key question is whether they will do so to support Saied or to oppose him. If the latter happens, the president will probably call his supporters into the streets. Such a move would be a risky ploy that Saied and his supporters will undoubtedly try to avoid, since they want as little drama as possible and only one real actor at center stage.

Setting the Electoral Stage

The most important scene-setting prop that has been put in place in advance of the December elections is a new constitution. This document lays out a maze of contradictory and ambiguously-defined powers that ultimately favor the president and the executive branch. The next order of business was to create a new electoral law. Published on September 15, its provisions seem calculated to create a new Assembly of the Representatives of the People, one that is constituted not by effective (or even weak) political parties, but rather by individuals, most of whom will belong to a faction or group beholden to the president. Another law will follow for electing the National Council of Regions and Districts, a body that despite Saied’s talk of “the people’s power” will probably be even more closely tied to him.

Decree Number 55 has been formulated and promulgated by the president and thus has no standing with any democratically elected body.

The 2022 electoral law is actually a presidential decree, Decree Number 55. As the very word “decree” indicates, it has been formulated and promulgated by the president and thus has no standing with any democratically elected body. It is an extralegal and extraconstitutional device whose stipulations including the following:

1) Candidates will submit their applications to run as individuals rather than as members of parties. This would not preclude the subsequent creation of parties, but because candidates will not run with the support of parties, they will not likely speak for shared platforms or principles. Instead, they will rely on their personal networks and popularity, or on the implicit support of informal networks tied to the president.

2) Candidates must secure 400 signatures of registered voters who are not allowed to endorse other candidates. Half of these voters must be women, and 25 percent must be under the age of 35. These requirements impose burdens that parties are far better placed to carry than individuals, many of whom will necessarily run in small constituencies where finding 400 dedicated voter endorsements could prove very difficult.

3) All public financing of campaigns is eliminated. This provision could favor wealthy individuals, especially those who have not run afoul of the efforts of the government and the judiciary to level corruption charges at various leaders from the political arena and the business community.

4) The government has the power to place limits on private campaign spending rather than fundraising. This provision not only favors wealthier candidates, but it also gives the government a handy—if arbitrary—tool to reward supporters and to punish actual or potential critics.

5) Raising the fines and the duration of prison sentences for violating campaign rules. Having already leveled accusations of electoral crimes at members of the 2019 assembly, the government is positioning itself to deter or prevent potential opponents from running, or to compel them not to enter parliament if they manage to win.

6) Makes it a crime to exploit another candidate’s “honor,” family, or geographic origin to secure votes, and states that candidates who have done so can have their votes declared illegal. Furthermore, the language in the decree gives the president the power to decide who has violated these laws.

7) Eliminates all clauses regarding gender parity in parliament. By dropping the gender alternation list provision that led to the election of 60 women MPs in 2014, the new law makes it very likely that the new parliament will be made up largely of men.

8) Replaces a formerly semi-proportional, multi-member closed list electoral system with single member districts elected by a simple majority that is to be secured, if necessary, in a run-off election. The 161 designated voting districts are much smaller than before, and far exceed the 33 voting districts established for the 2014 elections. This makes it likely that the winners will be local traditional leaders who enjoy very localized support, as opposed to party leaders who speak for distinct constituencies and party platforms.

Taken in sum, these provisions will create an assembly that is likely to have little authority, or that will merely act as adjunct to the president. Thus it is hardly surprising that Ahmed Najib Chebbi, the head of the National Salvation Front, stated that the law “is not valid to create a representative body, but rather it perpetuates the system that Kais Saied seeks to build.” All of Tunisia’s key opposition parties, including Ennahda, have announced that they will boycott the December elections. But while this decision is certainly understandable, it may only make it easier for Saied to pursue his authoritarian project.

Re-traditionalization Versus Women’s Rights and Islamists

In his bid to advance this project, Saied is relying on a strategy of “re-traditionalization,” which is already unfolding under his stern leadership. The goal is to reaffirm and disseminate a vision of the Tunisian political community as a kind of united family presided over by an ultimate father figure who speaks for the shared and authentic cultural and social virtues of “the people” and “the nation.” Saied has telegraphed this paternalistic ethos in his speeches and in the elaborate choreography of his meetings with foreign dignitaries and Tunisian leaders, including military and police officials.

To evoke and appropriate for himself the symbols of tradition and community, Saied must also ensure that he has no competition from leaders or parties whose identity is tied to questions of faith. Thus he has focused his energies on silencing key leaders of Ennahda, including its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, whose overnight interrogation by the country’s “anti-terrorism police” on September 19 and 20—which was followed by the interrogation of former Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh—was probably a prelude to banning the party or to preventing its leaders from running in the upcoming elections. Such a move would not exclude the creation of another Islamist party, providing that it be beholden to the president. But given the risks entailed in tolerating even a “loyal” alternative, Saied might prefer to advance a strategy that precludes an independent Islamist party, no matter how moderate its program.

This strategy has put the secular-oriented modernist camp in a bind. Suspicious of all Islamist parties, its leaders have resisted an alliance with Ennahda. But their public statements show that they fully grasp what the president is up to. Women activists have decried the gap between a president who appointed the Arab world’s first woman prime minister and 10 other women members of a 24 member cabinet, but who, having now backed a constitution that eliminates provisions for gender parity, is seeking to strengthen his hold on power in ways that ensure that women appointees are, as one activist put it, “merely tools for implementing the will and policies of the president.” Ahlam Boursal, general secretary of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, meanwhile, insists that despite the leading role of women in the cabinet, the government has failed to address three key issues, namely “violence and hate speech” aimed at women, “impunity…among the police force who reject women’s complaints” about violence, and the “deterioration in the economic and social status of women.”

The use of gender rights as a smokescreen by a president who, like Ennahda, opposed proposals by the modernist camp to reform the inheritance law has helped to galvanize opposition within the modernist and women’s rights camp. But there is little evidence that his critics have narrowed the ideological gap or long-standing suspicions that have split the opposition. Saied’s familiar “family values” pitch works because it rings true for many Tunisians and because it plays to their contempt for a discredited political class.

An Expanding Net of Repression

While Saied has focused his wrath on Islamist leaders, his government has expanded the net of repression across the entire ideological field. The overriding goal here appears to be to exclude political leaders who are either from or linked to the previous parliament from standing for election in December, or from otherwise mobilizing opposition to the president. Human Rights Watch reported in September that three MPs were imprisoned for “speech offenses” and that “at least 50 Tunisians have been placed under arbitrary house arrest, including former officials, a judge, and three lawmakers.” All of this occurred before the government accelerated its political assault on Ennahda.

Even if Tunisia is currently far from being a police state, the political and legal stage is being arranged in ways that could create the country’s slide into full autocracy.

In addition to these arrests and related actions, the government has taken other steps that provide ample cause for concern. These include a new law that punishes anyone who publishes “false information.” This broadly stated and largely arbitrary law—combined with efforts to subordinate the judiciary to the executive—suggests that Saied is creating a tool kit that can be selectively used to browbeat his critics. How far this will go is still unclear. But even if Tunisia is currently far from being a police state, the political and legal stage is being arranged in ways that could create the country’s slide into full autocracy. Much will depend on how the December elections play out, and how Saied decides to manage his relations with the new assembly. The next six weeks may therefore prove crucial.

The Economic Crisis: A Wild Card

The economy is the one wild card in Tunisia’s fraught political landscape that might upend Saied’s authoritarian project. Food and gas shortages are growing. The government’s bid to ration staples such as sugar, oil, and butter has provoked widespread scorn and periodic protests, especially in impoverished urban areas. These clumsy and poorly coordinated efforts contrast sharply with Saied’s promise to create an effective government that—in presumed contrast to the previous parliament and government—is supposed to deliver basic health services, reduce corruption, and provide security.

The food and gas shortages are partly a consequence of the fact that the government lacks the hard currency needed to cover imports and subsidies. Pushed to the wall, on October 15, Tunisian officials reached a staff-level agreement with the IMF. In return for a series of steps to reduce government expenditures, the IMF will provide a 48-month Extended Fund Facility of nearly $2 billion. But the terms of the deal, which include “a comprehensive agenda to reform state-owned enterprises, starting with the enactment of a new SOE law,” have provoked opposition from the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT). Indeed, several weeks before the agreement was reached, the union warned that any deal that proposed “painful” measures would be met by strikes, promising that “we will be with our people in the front lines of the struggle and in the streets.”

Evidently the IMF had hoped that the government would reach an agreement with the union and thus avoid this dangerous scenario. But if the IMF’s executive board gives its final approval and the plan moves forward, the union might act on its threats, thus increasing the prospects for additional violent encounters between protesters and the police. With the government promising to rework its huge subsidy system, a major confrontation between the state and the UGTT is a definite possibility.

Chaos and the Military

Saied, who has effectively depended on the UGTT to give his moves against the opposition—and especially Ennahda—its implicit blessing, has no interest in a clash with the union. But this arrangement may not be able to reverse a rising wave of protests and dissension from multiple directions, which might include demonstrations by police unions seeking better conditions for their members. The September 23 jailing of eight union members for “harming public security” speaks to what appears to many Tunisians to be a situation of near chaos, for which there is no obvious solution or plan.

This situation has apparently worried Saied’s own supporters. Warning that “if the situation continues…it could lead to a social explosion,” a member of the pro-Saied July 25 Movement recently called for a cabinet reshuffle and the “appointment of military figures in the ministries.” While it is unlikely that the president would make such an extreme move, the proposal underscores the growing sense of desperation in the small circle of leaders who wagered that Saied would and could rescue Tunisia.

The international community is also alarmed. The recent provision of $60 million of aid from the United States Agency for International Development is designed to give “rapid assistance” to struggling Tunisian families whose suffering, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has noted, has deepened in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and the worldwide increase in grain prices. But the Biden administration appears unable or unwilling to insert itself into the minefield of Tunisia’s internal political struggles. Nor does it seem prepared to use significant backstage or public pressure to dissuade Saied from setting the stage for elections that might only deepen the many divides that now define Tunisia’s political and social terrain.

Featured image credit: Facebook/Présidence Tunisie