Recent Elections Show Rise of Populism in Tunisia5 min read

On December 17th, 2010, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi began a revolution, sparking nationwide protests in just days- protests that would later develop into the Arab Springs. Tunisia was in disarray, suffering from vast unemployment and a general dire economic state. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after twenty-one days of intense protests, was ousted. While this transition of power from an authoritarian president was critical, equally as important is who the shift in power goes to.  

As the first democratically elected president in Tunisia, Beji Caid Essebsi helped to usher in a new age of freedom in Tunisia. While democratic milestones were reached, such as the election of parliament and the drafting of a constitution, these achievements mean little to constituents without change for Tunisians.  Abdessalam Bouazizi, a cousin of the man who set himself on fire said, “It was better under Ben Ali. People have less money now, so we sell less.” Essebsi’s presidency was also stained with a rather authoritarian response to security challenges, and perhaps too ready to forget the crimes of the autocratic regime that lived before.  

 With the end of Beji Caid Essebsi’s presidency as he passed away on July 25th, 2019, Tunisia was forced to move up the November presidential elections. The election held on September 15th were only the second election in Tunisia’s history. Twenty-six candidates ran, including two women, hoping to reach the majority vote that is required to win. Elections are generally an important measure for satisfaction with institutions, as well as the people who run them. Most candidates focused their campaigns on themselves instead of policy content. This was particularly evident during the presidential debates, where candidates struggled to answer basic questions on issues such as national security and political policy reform. It seemed as if no candidate was competent or experienced enough to reestablish democracy in Tunisia and be able to deliver the social and economic reforms necessary to resolve the country’s problems (Guesmi, 2019).  

Even so, there were many political elites in the race, including Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and former interim President Moncef Marzouki. When the results came out, Tunisians and the world alike were shocked when those political elites did not advance. Instead, two political outsiders rose above. Kaïs Saïed, an independent 61-year-old Constitutional law professor with no political experience took the top spot with 18.4% of the vote. Nabil Karoui, a media mogul currently in jail on charges of money laundering and tax fraud, took the second spot with 15.6% of the vote. This result is detrimental for the establishment, and perhaps even destructive for democracy. 

The selection of these two unique candidates send a clear message: we will no longer support political elites. Both candidates have capitalized on the dwindling support for democracy using different populist rhetoric. Kaïs Saïed has appealed in particular to the youth, promising a decentralized government that restores the goals of the revolution, “hijacked” by corrupt political parties. Saïed has worked to distance himself from the look of a political elite by taking public transportation and living at home instead of the presidential palace. To this point, Saïed, having never held a political office and not even voting until he was on the ballot, has squarely positioned himself as a true political outsider.  

 In contrast, Nabil Karoui has argued for a strong state to restore economic growth to Tunisia. Despite his wealth, Karoui has marketed himself as a champion for the “other Tunisia”, poor and forgotten members of the population, a reputation cultivated by his charity show Khalil Tounes and by philanthropic acts such as giving away fridges and televisions. He, unlike Saïed, is not a political novice. Karoui co-founded the Nidaa Tounes (The Call of Tunisia) with ousted president Beji Caid Essebsi. Despite this, he has still presented himself as a political outsider, having also never held a political office. 

Both approaches, with strong populism messages, speak to an international phenomenon with the rise of political outsiders. Why are democracies, both new and developed, embracing political outsiders? What does this mean for the fate of those democracies? Often seen as a model for new democracies, Tunisia’s situation may speak to the greater difficulties with establishing and consolidating new democracies, particularly in a political climate where established democracies are being overtaken by strong populist leaders, as the case with Donald Trump in the United States of America and Jair Bolsonaro. Populism, defined as kicking out the political establishment, seeks to create a divide; their emphasis on separating the political elite from the true citizens defines their campaigns, justifying their messages as the “will of the people” (Friedman 2017). While populism may not be inherently bad, the alternative to established political elites is often grave. As the value of democracy continues to decline, it is evident that Tunisia has become a perfect breeding ground for populism.   

Works Cited:

Friedman, Uri. “What Is a Populist?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 28 Feb. 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/02/what-is-populist-trump/516525/.

Grewal, Sharan. “Political Outsiders Sweep Tunisia’s Presidential Elections.” Brookings, Brookings, 16 Sept. 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/09/16/political-outsiders-sweep-tunisias-presidential-elections/.

Guesmi, Haythem. “Democracy Will Be the Loser of Tunisia’s Presidential Election.” Middle East | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 14 Sept. 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/democracy-loser-tunisia-presidential-election-190913122825450.html.

Lageman, Thessa. “Mohamed Bouazizi: Was the Arab Spring Worth Dying for?” News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 3 Jan. 2016, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/12/mohamed-bouazizi-arab-spring-worth-dying-151228093743375.html.

1 thought on “Recent Elections Show Rise of Populism in Tunisia<span class="wtr-time-wrap after-title"><span class="wtr-time-number">5</span> min read</span>”

  1. I think this election is illustrative of many of the principles we’ve talked about in class and makes for a good case study on potential for backsliding. It is especially interesting that populism, in some form, has spread to Tunisia, which has been held up as the shining example of successful democratization as a result of the Arab Spring. I find it more than a little ironic that populism is even possible in a country whose democratic “establishment” could necessarily only be a few years old. Nevertheless, the situation poses a number of concerns for observers of democracy. Does Tunisia have sufficiently codified institutions and norms to withstand a potential populist takeover? What shortcomings must democracy in Tunisia have if alternative, or at least subversive, offerings are taken seriously? Where does democracy in the world stand if its golden child in the 21st century has already begun to slip away? It will be curious to see if this election represents a minor course correction in Tunisian democracy or a more fundamental threat.

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