Democracy Promotion No Longer? Autocratic Diffusion and Economic Barriers to Democratic Consolidation in Tunisia
Abstract: The crisis of democracy in Tunisia continues, as President Kais Saied declared an indefinite suspension of parliament, which he has depicted as a threat to the state. Amidst this crisis, the indecisive attitude of international democratic actors has disappointed many and created a power vacuum for MENA strongmen to extend their political influence on Tunisia. This piece draws attention to the important role international actors played in consolidating democracy in past democratic transitions. However, the EU and the US failed to assume this role throughout the transition period in Tunisia and avoided strongly denouncing Saied’s takeover. This inaction deprived Tunisian democratic actors of the necessary financial and technical assistance to address Tunisia’s administrative deficiencies which reflected itself in declining income levels and increasing disillusionment. Without external democracy promotion, Tunisia became more fragile to autocratic diffusion.
Seven weeks after his executive takeover on July 25, 2021, President Kais Saied announced his intention to change the constitution in a television broadcast to the Tunisian people. He emphasized that the 2014 constitution was not “eternal” and could be amended.[i] His call for extensive amendments met immediate rejection from the Ennahda party and the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), both of which viewed the move as a retreat from democracy.[ii] These concerns regarding the future of Tunisian democracy are not groundless as the President also declared the indefinite suspension of parliament, despite passing a previous 30-day deadline enshrined in the constitutional article he used to legitimate his takeover. This means that the parliament will remain shut for an undetermined time throughout which all legislative, judicial, and executive powers will remain Saied’s prerogative. However, what truly worried many observers was his portrayal of parliament as “a threat to the state,”[iii] thereby reducing the possibility of a peaceful transition in the future.
It is highly likely that Saied’s amendments will drive the country towards a more authoritarian direction, and that the electoral law and administrative institutions will be reconfigured in counter-majoritarian ways to balance the national will in future elections. Currently, President Saied feels confident given the popular support he enjoys and thus extended parliament’s suspension to buy more time to finalize his roadmap.[iv] The previously announced 30-day suspension was simply a transition period for people to grow accustomed to the new situation and dilute the possible reactions to his full-blown authoritarian turn. He is aware of the public’s fatigue with the economic problems and corruption scandals of the last decade and knows that to a large extent Tunisia’s populace is not concerned with violations of checks and balances, but rather expect him to improve economic conditions and purge corruption. In short, recent developments demonstrate that the domestic environment presents pro-democratic actors with several drawbacks. Could international democratic actors mitigate the unhospitable domestic environment to democracy? Should Tunisian democratic actors expect more from external actors?
Democratic actors across the world largely remained passive observers of the situation in Tunisia. The European Union (EU) and the United States (US) only expressed their “concerns” regarding the “situation” while mostly avoiding making any strong denouncements of Saied’s executive takeover.[v] Their statements emphasized the need to restore constitutional order and maintain parliamentary activity without referring to individuals behind the crisis. Several analysts viewed these statements as hollow and toothless responses.[vi] Can Tunisian democracy survive and consolidate despite the absence of global democratic endorsement?
President Saied legitimized his intervention by referring to the declining economy and increasing disillusionment. Nevertheless, by providing financial and technical assistance to democratic actors over the last decade, the international community could have played a constructive role in strengthening democracy in Tunisia as the deteriorating economic conditions and pervasive corruption would be less likely to pose challenges to the consolidation of democracy. In order to appease the public, which is mostly concerned with the general living standards, and the anti-democratic elites who might have vested interests in the country’s economic growth, a stable economic performance is critical to any democratic regime’s survival and consolidation. Especially during periods of transition, increasing wealth provides new democratic regimes with the necessary support from the masses and old elites, thereby eliminating potential threats to the democratic transition process. When these conditions are not met, young democracies rarely survive.
This piece places the recent crisis of Tunisian democracy in a wider context and discusses the factors beyond domestic causes that brought its democracy to the verge of breakdown. It first tackles the issue of democracy promotion and analyzes the ways in which international democratic actors failed to serve as democratic anchors for post-2011 Tunisia. This brief then focuses on the political economy of democratic transitions and identifies structural barriers to consolidating democracy in the case of Tunisia.