After President Beji Caid Essebsi passed away in 2019 a new president was chosen in October of that year, law professor Kais Saied. A month later Tunisia also held parliamentary elections that led to a four month long political crisis over the formation of a government. After the elections, the biggest party Ennahda put forward a prime minister from its own ranks, namely agricultural engineer Habib Jemli. In January 2020 Jemli proposed a cabinet made up of independent technocrats in a bid to satisfy the population who had continuously protested against the deteriorating conditions in the country. However, this proposal was rejected by parliament, with only 72 of 217 sets backing it, including by Ennahda’s potential coalition partners. Ennahda was therefore forced to compromise.
It was then up to President Saied to choose a new candidate for prime minister. He chose former finance minister Elyes Fakhfakh, linked to the Ettakatol party, on the 20th of January 2020, hoping that his economic background would help save the worsening economy in the country. However, in July 2020, he resigned in the wake of controversy regarding alleged conflict of interest with company shares he owned. This has never been proven though. From September 2020, Tunisia’s new prime minister is the independent Hichem Mechichi. As Saied, he had no previous experience in politics and initiated the formation of another cabinet made up of independents. However since then he has come under more pressure from parliament though, who have raised their price for support, demanding more representation.
As a result, without the consent of President Saied, Mechichi reshuffled his cabinet in January of 2021. Four ministers considered loyal to President Saied were replaced. The largest party in parliament, the Ennahda movement, had been most vocal pushing for a cabinet with more “political colour”. President Saied was not amused by Mechichi’s decision and has called the reshuffle unconstitutional. Whether Saied is correct in saying this cannot be decided though, because Tunisia still lacks a full-functioning Constitutional Court, which was created in 2014. Parliament had for years been unable to appoint three judges. When it did so in April of 2021, Saied refused to accept the appointment of the judges, illustrating how Tunisia's power struggles between the president, prime minister and parliament have led to a political deadlock.
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- 11,694,719 million (World Bank 2019 est.)
- Governmental Type:
- Ruling Coalition:
- Ennahda, Tahya Tounes, Tunisian Alternative
- Last Elections:
- 2019 (parliamentary and presidential elections)
- Next Elections:
- 2024 (parliamentary and presidential elections)
- Sister Parties:
- Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties (FDTL) - Ettakatol
Tunisian revolution and the political situation under Ben Ali
The current political situation in Tunisia is the result of the popular unrest that erupted in the first half of 2011 after a young man set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid on 17 December 2010. The frustration of the man concerning the high unemployment rate, living conditions, the economic situation and annoyance with the ruling elite was shared by many Tunisians. Demonstrations occurred around the country for weeks and resulted in the ouster of President Ben Ali on 14 January 2011. Fouad Mebezaa, the speaker of the Tunisian parliament, was sworn in as the country's interim president on 15 January and on 17 January a new government was formed by Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi.. It is said that over 338 people were killed during the Tunisian uprising.
Before the popular uprising and Tunisia’s legislative elections of 2011, the country underwent a long period of authoritarian rule. The bicameral legislative authority was controlled by former President Ben Ali’s political party the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). Although the role of political parties used to be defined by the constitution as "political parties help to educate citizens so as to organise their participation in political life", only 20% of the Chamber of Deputies was granted to opposition parties. Tailor-made laws prevented the candidates from some of the stronger opposition parties from running and severe constraints on freedoms of expression, the press, and assembly deprived challengers from making their case to the public. It was therefore inevitable that Ben Ali and his party the RCD won both elections with a majority of the votes.
2014 new constitution and the political system
Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly approved a new constitution for the country on 25 January 2014, three years after dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted by a popular uprising. It was praised as one of the Arab World’s most progressive charters, by recognising Islam as the state religion, but also protecting freedom of belief and gender parity in politics and society. It also ensures political pluralism by affirming the opposition’s rights. On October 26 of 2014 the country’s first parliamentary elections under the newly adopted constitution were set to take place. Although Tunisia's new constitution reaffirms the pre-existing Republican system, in which the executive power is held by the president for five years with the help of the prime minister, it modified the legislative power.
Until January 2014 the parliament was bicameral, composed of a Chamber of Deputies and a Chamber of Advisors. Today, it is composed of a sole Chamber, the Assembly of the Representatives of the People. The leader of the majority party or coalition after elections is designated by the president as prime minister. The prime minister is tasked to form a government and functions as the head of government, mainly being responsible for domestic policies. The parliament consists of 217 seats, which are elected based on party-list proportional representation for a term of five year. However, parliament can be dissolved by the president under special circumstances. Tunisia is administratively divided into 24 governorates, headed by governors who are appointed by the president. The country enjoys competitive elections thanks to lively partisan life, which is constitutionally guaranteed by article 35.
The head of state in Tunisia, the president, is directly elected by the electorate for a five-year term. Within a month of his or her election, the president must appoint a prime minister, who is tasked to form a government. The president in Tunisia is not merely a ceremonial position, but holds many executive powers. To illustrate, Article 77 of the Constitution of Tunisia states that the president is also the commander-in-chief of the Tunisian Armed Forces. In general, the president is mainly responsible for foreign policy, defense and national security, while the prime minister is responsible for domestic affairs. However, with powers to sign and execute laws and appoint and dismiss ministers, the president also holds a powerful position when it comes to domestic politics. On several domestic issues it remains unclear where the power exactly lies, with disputes between the president and prime minister as a consequence.
Lack of a Constitutional Court
One of the great improvements in the 2014 constitution is the creation of a Constitutional Court, which restricts the legislative power and prevents laws that would go against rights and freedoms from being ratified. However, the Constitutional Court has so far not been full-functioning. The political parties in parliament have only been able to appoint one judge so far, leaving three vacant posts in the Court made up of twelve judges. Part of the reasons that parliament has only appointed one judge so far, is that choosing judges is a polarizing process, just like in the United States. Another cause was the coalition’s desire to avoid polarizing for the sake of stability and consensus. When in April of 2021 the parliament passed a bill to finalize the set-up of the Constitutional Court, in order to resolve the power conflicts between the president and prime minister, President Saied refused to ratify the bill.
Logic of consensus dominates Tunisian politics
After the parliamentary elections in 2014 two parties, Nidaa Tounes led by Béji Caïd Essebsi and the Ennahda movement of Rached Ghannouchi, became the country’s largest parties. For the sake of consensus the political rivals decided to form a government together. Essebsi became the country’s president and the gravitational centre of Tunisian politics. In 2016 the Carthage Agreement was signed, which formalized the process of forming a “government of national unity”. The agreement solidified the willingness of the country’s elite to cooperate and compromise. However, it also marginalized parliamentary opposition and opposition within civil society, paving the way for anti-establishment forces to develop. The compromise was worked out between Essebsi and Ghannouchi and not between organizations, making it unstable and bypassing political parties.
President Saied’s election as a turning point
The formation of a coalition together with Ennahda proved disastrous for Nidaa Tounes. The party, which was completely built around Essebsi, started splitting. A conflict over the future of the party, with Essebsi growing older and older, led to the final decline of the party. When the parliamentary elections in 2019 took place the party’s support had all but disappeared, also because Essebsi himself had died in July of 2019. The decline of Nidaa Tounes gave the final push for anti-establishment forces to rise. This manifested itself in more populist forces entering parliament and the election of, outsider to politics, Kais Saied as president. He envisions a different kind of democracy, built from the bottom-up rather than top-down. Hence, he supported the formation of a technocratic government.
The election of Saied has brought about many new challenges for Tunisian politics. After his election, the leader of Ennahda Ghannouchi, became the speaker of parliament. With the rift between Saied and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who had been put forward by Saied himself after his election, multiple centres of gravity have emerged in Tunisian politics, which are fighting over power. This has led to a political deadlock, without a Constitutional Court to settle disputes. The president, prime minister and parliament, led by the Ghannouchi, have been unable to come together and amid the country’s economic crisis, which was only worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, in the beginning of 2021 protests erupted, and have been ongoing, in multiple Tunisian cities. People are disillusioned by the political process, which in their eyes was transformed by political parties into a clash of ambitions and personalities.
IMF bailout as COVID-19 intensifies already existing crisis
The prolonged political crisis, the persistent economic instability, increased social tension and high unemployment caused Tunisia to ask the IMF for a four year program (the Extended Fund Facility) to support their economic modernization plan, the country’s development model and help reduce existing vulnerabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic only made the structural problems the country is facing even more apparent, so in April 2020 the IMF Executive Board approved a $745 million disbursement to Tunisia to address the Corona crisis. A couple of months later in June 2020 the IMF also approved a four year loan of $2.9 billion to support the authorities’ economic agenda aimed at promoting more inclusive growth and job creation, while protecting the most vulnerable households.
Gender representation and women’s rights
Tunisia is often said to be the most progressive Arab country in terms of women’s rights. In fact, female representation in parliament has risen to 31% since 2011. The constitution of 2014 not only grants equality of men and women but also includes a “guarantee of equality of opportunity” and aims “to achieve equal representation…in elected councils'' in article 46, stating clear goals. In 2017 two further laws, which strengthened women's rights, passed the parliament. Since June domestic violence has been criminalized and Muslim women are able to marry non-Muslim men (interfaith marriages), which according to Islamic law, is not allowed. Additionally, the parliament abolished a reform which would have allowed rapists to escape punishments by marrying the victim.
However, progress has its barriers in Tunisia. Men are still considered to be the one who takes care of the family and its finances, although a growing number of female workers has been entering the labour market. Restrictions come from the rulings of the Islamic law, highly influential religious institutions and most importantly society itself. Former president Beji Caid Essbsi’s steps towards giving women more rights (mainly to show the world how modern Tunisia is), have been heavily criticised as “state-imposed feminism”. Many say that the government is touching Tunisian cultural roots and strongly oppose new laws like the inheritance law, granting women the same amount as men.
The LGBTI community continues to suffer on Tunisia’s religion based laws. Protests for more rights of LGBTI groups have been shut down for various reasons. Hate speech in public media is very common and government statements on the situation are very rare, although discrimination from TV stations and news agencies is forbidden. Homosexuality remains illegal and punishable in Tunisia under article 230 of the penal code. Critics have been repeatedly saying that article 230 violates constitutional rights such as equality before the law (article 21) and personal privacy (article 24). Through a new committee, established by the president, women’s rights and the status of the LGBTI community have been discussed and might be reformed through bills in the parliament.
The most recent improvement in Tunisia was the founding of the region’s first queer radio station ‘Shams’, which against many death threats, still broadcasts on the daily lives of LGBTI individuals. When in 2019 LGBTI activist Mounir Baatour announced he would be running for president, he became the first openly gay presidential candidate in the Arab world. Despite progress in such areas, in 2020 LGBTI people continued to be arrested on the ground of same sexual relations, reffered to a “indedency” and “offensive to public morals”. Cross-dressing is not illegal, but transgender people and gay people are can be accused of violating Article 226, that considers it as “outrages against public decency”. Moreover, even though the UN’s proposal to end anal testing was accepted by the Tunisian government, it has not taken steps to live up to its promises.
National Constituent Assembly elections 2011
On 23 October 2011 Tunisia held free elections for the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) for the first time in history. The task of the 217-seat NCA was to write a new constitution for the country and to form an interim government. The two most important issues in the campaign were the questions of the place of religion within the new constitution and how to deal with the remaining old RCD regime representatives. On 21 November 2011, a coalition of Ennahda, CPR and FDTL/Ettakotal was formed holding a majority of 138 seats in the assembly. They agreed to share the three highest posts in the Assembly. Therefore Ettakotal/FDTL leader Mustapha Ben Jaafar was elected President of the Assembly and Meherzia Labidi (Ennahda) and Larbi Abid (CPR) were elected vice presidents. The Assembly also performed normal parliamentary functions in that year, such as government oversight and the drafting of new legislation.
2019 parliamentary elections
On October 6th 2019 parliamentary elections were held in Tunisia. These were the first parliamentary elections since the 2014 parliamentary election, in which catch-all secular party Nidaa Tounes (also known as ‘Call of Tunisia’) became the biggest party with 86 seats, followed by the Ennahda movement (a moderate Islamic party) with 69 seats.The voter turnout was approximately 41%, which is slightly lower than that of the first round in the presidential elections of the previous month where the voter turnout was about 49%. The election results produced a fractured parliament with none of the parties receiving more than 20% of the votes.
The Ennahda Movement received the highest percentage of votes with 19.93% of the votes which translates into 52 seats. This constitutes a loss of 17 seats in comparison to the previous parliamentary elections but an increase of 5 percentage points in comparison to that of what its presidential candidate Abdelfattah Mourou received less than a month earlier. Two factors can explain the quick voter share increase. The first is that Ennahda endorsed Kais Saied, the winner of the first round of the presidential elections. Saied did not belong to or endorse any political party and therefore his voters were up for grabs in the parliamentary elections. Ennahda not only endorsed Saied but attempted to convince his voters that Ennahda was their best hope for forming a government that was friendly to a Saied presidency. Second, after Ennahda’s own presidential candidate Mourou finished third place in the presidential election, they reevaluated their campaign strategy. For the parliamentary election Ennahda focused on two fundamentals, namely religion and the revolution which in the end proved successful.
The second-largest party was the centre-left secular newcomer ‘Heart of Tunisia’ party. The party was established on the 20th of June 2019 by Nabil Karoui. Houda Knani was named the party’s president. She was a former member of the Free Patriotic Union that won 16 seats (third-biggest party) in the last election. However, due to internal disputes, many of its members resigned so the Free Patriotic Union decided to merge with Nidaa Tounes in 2018. Another newcomer to parliament was the right-wing secular Free Destourian Party, founded by former members of Tunisia’s pre-revolution ruling party, which became the third biggest party winning 6.63% of the votes and was appointed 17 seats. Up until August 2016, the party was called the Destourian Movement. The movement participated in the 2014 parliamentary election but did not win any seats.
Dignity Coalition also came new to the scene winning 21 seats, making it the fourth-largest party. The alliance was formed in February 2019 and consists of several parties and independents, such as the Tunisian Reform Front, the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and the Justice and Development Party. Their main goal is to advance the goals of the revolution, in which ‘dignity’ was one of the main slogans. Just ahead of the Dignity Coalition, Democratic Current won 22 seats making it the third-largest party. Democratic current is a social-democratic party and was established in 2013. In the 2014 parliamentary election, the party just won 3 seats.
In fifth place finishes the People’s Movement party with 15 seats. The party is socialist, secular and Arab nationalist in nature. Closely following behind, in sixth place, came the secular party Tahya Tounes (Long Live Tunisia) with 14 seats. This party was formed in January of 2019 and mostly consists of former members of the Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) party after mass defection over internal disagreements whether or not president Essebsi’s son (Hafed Caid Essebsi) was fit to run the party. As a result, Nidaa Tounes’ seats fell from 86 in the 2014 parliamentary election to just 3 in the 2019 election.
According to the joint international election observation mission of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), Tunisians were overall able to participate in a well-administered election despite confusion created by the overlapping presidential election and the shortened electoral timeline. De lower voter turnout of 41% compared to the 2014 parliamentary election where turnout was approximately 60% can according to the NDI and IRI be attributed to the continued frustration with persistent corruption and the ongoing economic crisis, as well as the lack of speed to implement reforms. This dissatisfaction is also reflected in the election results. Moreover, the election was held amidst high-security threats of terrorism which could have impacted voter turnout. However, officials overall did what they could to facilitate the election which is evident from the increase in protection at polling stations. The election observation mission of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) stated as well that it had not found any serious election violations, echoing what the NDI and IRI said about Tunisians being able to participate in a well-administered election.
Official election results
|Heart of Tunisia||415,913||38|
|Free Destourian Party||189,356||17|
|Republican People's Union||59,924||3|
|Aïch Tounsi||46, 401||1|
|Democratic and Social Union (VDS-PR-MDS)||29,828||1|
|Current of Love||17,749||1|
|Socialist Destourian Party||16,235||1|
|Farmers' Voice Party||9,366||1|
Since the parliamentary election, the process of forming a government has been challenging. In November Ennahda proposed Habib Jemli, an agricultural engineer, as prime-minister. Even though Jemli presented himself as independent, it is widely known that he has close ties to Ennahda. In January of 2020, Jemli proposed a cabinet made up of independent technocrats to avoid political polarization and prevent parliamentarians from objecting to the government. However, parliament rejected the proposed cabinet with only backing it with 72 of the 217 votes.
One argument for why the government was rejected was that some members of parliament preferred a candidate that did not have close ties to Ennahda but was instead independent. The cabinet was by many seen as a move by Ennahda to press its allies into government since upon closer inspection the proposed cabinet was not as independent as it may seem, just like Jemli. Another argument was that some members of parliament preferred a candidate with an economic background that could help save the worsening economy.
Since the proposal for a new government was rejected, it was up to president Saied to choose a new candidate for prime-minister within 10 days. On January 20th he chose former finance minister Elyes Fakhfakh. On the 15th of February Fakhfakh proposed a new government half of which was made up of independents and half of party politicians. However, Fakhfakh left the ‘Heart of Tunisia’ and the Free Destourian party out of its formation.
Ennahda refused to back a government that did not represent all parties and therefore Fakhfakh was forced to start negotiations since the proposal included 6 Ennahda members in government. Since the election the People’s movement has formed a parliamentary block with Democratic Current and independents (41 seats), which voted in favour of the proposal on the 26th of February 2020. In total 129 out of 217 members backed the new cabinet which meant that Tunisia's four-month-long political crisis had come to an end. However, this was only short lived.
Fall of the Fakhfakh-led government
After only five months in power, prime minister Fakhfakh had to resign due to claims of conflict of interest. He allegedly was involved in businesses that received millions of dollars worth of government contracts. Even though the prime minister denied any wrongdoing and the claims were never proven to be true, the Ennahda party, making use of the momentum to get rid of the government, put forward a vote of no confidence. Fakhfakh wanted to avoid a political crisis in which institutions were forced against each other and therefore resigned on 15 July 2020.
Within two weeks, president Saied appointed Hichem Mechichi as new prime minister. Mechichi, an independent, chose to form a technocratic government, which Ennahda was not happy with as they wanted the government to represent the elected political parties of parliament. Since Ennahda is the biggest faction, this would be most beneficial for them. However, they did realise that the country could be thrown into a new political crisis if Mechichi’s government would not be accepted. Therefore, at the beginning of September, the technocratic government received a cross-party vote of confidence, with 137 Members voting in favour and 67 against. The new government has 25 ministers and three secretaries of state, of which eight are female.
New composition of parliamentary blocs (27 October 2020)
It is not uncommon in Tunisian politics that members of parliament switch allegiance and change parties or become independents. Based on this, the support for the government also changes. These changes are every time announced by the Speaker of the House of People's Representatives (HRP) Rached Ghannouchi. The latest change involved the resignation of seven MP’s from the al-Watania group. The new composition of the parliamentary blocs now stands as follows: Ennahdha: 54 MPs, Democratic Bloc: 38 MPs, Qalb Tounes: 30 MPs, al-Karama Coalition: 18 MPs, National Reform Bloc: 16 MPs, Free Destourian Party: 16 MPs, Tahya Tounes: 10 MPs, al-Watania Bloc: 9 MPs and independent MPs: 26.
2019 presedential elections
On September 15th 2019 Tunisia held the first round of the presidential elections, followed by a second round on October 13th 2019. This was the second presidential election after the 2011 revolution. The election was originally planned on the 17th and 24th of November 2019, but because of the death of incumbent president Beji Caid Essebsi on the 25th of July, they were moved. According to the Tunisian constitution, a new president has to take office within 90 days because any interim president is only allowed to sit for that amount of time.
In the first round, independent candidate Kais Saied came in first out of 26 candidates, of which two were women. Saied was a newcomer to Tunisian politics but received more than 18% of the votes. Before the revolution, Saied was involved in academics but nevertheless became a well-known media figure through his comments on constitutional and legal issues after the fall of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. He gained a huge following online, especially among young people, for his spontaneity, sincerity and comfort with public speaking that distinguished him from the traditional stereotype of politicians.
The runner up in the first round of the election was Nabil Karoui of Qalb Tounes (also known as Heart of Tunisia party) who ran his campaign from prison. Karoui was arrested on August 23rd on charges of corruption and money laundering. Before the first round of the election, the Assembly of Representatives (Tunisia’s legislative branch of government) passed an amendment to the law that prohibited candidates with a criminal record, as well as those who run charitable organizations or received foreign funding for political advertising in the year preceding an election, from running for president. The amendment caused a lot of controversies and a motion was filed by several political parties that called the move unconstitutional.
However, outgoing president Essebsi failed to ratify the legal amendment before he died which made it possible for Karoui to form the ‘Heart of Tunisia’ party and run for president, after all, winning nearly 16% of the votes. In third place, Ennahda’s candidate Abdelfattah Mourou came in a full five points behind Saied. The winner of the 2014 legislative elections, the Nidaa Tounes party, was completely absent from the presidential election after the death of former president and Nidaa Tounes founder Beji Caid Essebsi. After Essebsi’s death, the leaders of the party and its supporters all dispersed.
The second round of the election saw Saied and Karoui go head to head. Saied won by receiving 72.7% of the votes. Voter turnout was estimated at 55%. The Sigma polling institute determined that 90% of young people between 18 and 25 voted for Saied, compared to the 49.2% of voters over 60. The election day itself went by without any incidents, but despite that national and international observers reported that there were problems with the transparency and the integrity of the electoral contest. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), who held a joined international election observation mission in Tunisia, for example, reported that they had concerns about candidates’ level of media access as well as about the coverage of the electoral campaign
Official election results
|First Round||Second Round|
|Candidate||Party||Votes - Percentage||Votes - Percentage|
|Kais Saied||Independent||620,711 - 18.40%||2,777,931 - 72.71%|
|Nabil Karoui||Heart of Tunisia||525,517 - 15.58%||1,042,894 - 27.29%|
|Abdelfattah Mourou||Ennahda Movement||434,530 - 12,88%|
|Abdelkrim Zbidi||Independent||361,864 - 10.73%|
|Youssef Chahed||Long Live Tunisia||249,049 - 7.38%|
|Safi Saïd||Independent||239,951 - 7.11%|
|Lotfi Mraihi||Republican People's Union||221,190 - 6.56%|
|Seiffedine Makhlouf||Dignity Coalition||147,351 - 4.37%|
|Abir Moussi||Free Destourian Party||135,461 - 4.02%|
|Mohamed Abbou||Democratic Current||122,287 - 3.63%|
|Moncef Marzouki||Movement Party||100,338 - 2.97%|
|Mehdi Jomaa||Tunisian Alternative||61,371 - 1.82%|
|Mongi Rahoui||Popular Front||27,355 - 0.81%|
|Hechmi Hamdi||Current of Love||25,284 - 0.7|