Tunisia has recently made news headlines because of the political crisis following the murder of an opposition leader. Eerikki Vainio worked as Demo’s project coordinator in autumn 2012 in Tunisia where Demo, together with its partners, supports the development of multiparty politics by training of young politicians. Vainio discusses the current political situation in Tunisia and reflects on its challenges and opportunities.
The lives of Tunisians were changed on the 14th of January in 2011 as Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, president since 1987, resigned and fled the country as a result of widespread demonstrations against the regime. The emerging Arab Spring had had its first victory and everything seemed possible. The date quickly turned into a watershed; there was Tunisia before January the 14th and Tunisia after it.
However, two years later the atmosphere is anything but confident. The political field in Tunisia has become increasingly turbulent, with decision making proving slow and difficult. This has led to deepening of confrontations and even in violence – the latest incident being the murder of opposition leader Chokri Belaïd – between the supporters of different political groups. As violence and insecurity become more common, Tunisians are questioning the direction the country has taken after the revolution. Optimism has changed into cynicism. One can say that in February 2013, the Tunisian revolution is at a new watershed.
Confrontations hold back new Constitution
The challenges confronting Tunisia’s political system are visible in the process of developing a new Constitution. Even though the mandate of the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia has already expired, the Assembly, elected in October 2011, still hasn’t reached consensus on the content of the law. Freedom of press and questions concerning the rights of women and the status of religion are among the issues under debate. The dispersed nature of the political field and deeply rooted confrontations explain the parties’ inability to cooperate. The most apparent division is between the islamist and secular groups.
The Ennahda party, a moderate Islamist group with the largest number of seats in the Constituent Assembly has benefited from a strong organizational structure compared to its rivals and from having, at least ostensibly, strived for executing a specified political programme. This has a major importance in a country that is struggling with social problems like considerable unemployment. However, the Islamist political movement is not homogenous. With the growth of political violence, the relationship between the moderates and the Salafist extremists has become problematic.
Secular political groups have not been able to cooperate enough to counterbalance Ennahda. There has been some progress, though, and the amount of alliances between parties, for instance l’Alliance démocratique, founded in November, has increased. In the long term, this kind of development may lead not only to formation of stronger secular parties but also to making new political developments more predictable. As far as the parliamentary elections planned for next summer are concerned, observers will follow these developments closely. Stronger and better organized secular parties would have better changes of competing with Ennahda.
Wanted: dialogue for a functioning multiparty system
One of the greatest challenges for multiparty politics in Tunisia is that those in power and those striving for power are politically inexperienced. Therefore they are not necessarily familiar with exercising power. This is one of the reasons why making dialogue possible and enhancing the emerging multiparty system are issues of major importance at the moment. This is also what Demo has been working for in Tunisia. Together with its partners NIMD (Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy), Bulgarian School of Politics and Tunisian CEMI (Centre des Etudes Méditerranéennes et Internationales), Demo supports the Tunisian School of Politics, which aims at strengthening the country’s multiparty system by training young politicians.
The School was launched in February 2012 and was successful in institutionalizing itself during its first year by carrying out its first two courses. 57 young politicians received a diploma for completing the course and the feedback from the participants showed that activities were of high quality. The approach used by the Tunisian School of Politics is based on participatory methods and learning by doing. This builds a concrete ground for working together and above all, makes dialogue possible for actors with different party backgrounds, which is the most significant achievement of the project. The activities are further developed and two courses are planned to take place in 2013, training a further 80 young politicians. The School is making its contribution to the stabilization of the political field in Tunisia.
Tunisians played a crucial role in starting the Arab Spring, and they can still act as pioneers for others. A constitution allowing a multiparty system and a functioning democracy, together with successful parliamentary elections would create possibilities to a long-term development of the society. Successes would also increase trust among Tunisians and work as examples for other countries in the region. Political dialogue plays a central role in allowing parties to learn to listen to and understand each other. Supporting this is extremely important now and in the future.