Tunisia election is small step in right direction

Tunisia election is small step in right direction

Some may look at the results of Tunisia’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, prior to November’s presidential election, with some sense of relief. Yet, it would probably be wrong to be overly optimistic, writes Dr Emmanuel Martin.

The Islamic party Ennahda accepted defeat by Nidaa Tounes, a party with a modernist, secular stance.

Tunisia seems to be more firmly connected to democracy by these new results, after an Islamist episode which was partly closed by a transition government earlier in 2014. Democracy will not bring anti-democratic forces back to power in the short run.

Now the country needs profound reform of its economic infrastructure. The so-called Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia in December 2010 when a street merchant set himself on fire in protest at the economic oppression imposed by a corrupt regime.

Today’s challenge for Tunisia is to restore economic freedom, especially the rule of law, and a sound business climate, so that prosperity can be achieved by all Tunisians - not just an elite.

Unfortunately, a strong, radical unionism which has grown up against the cronyism of the ‘family’ under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 30-year rule, is now a major obstacle to sound economic reforms to foster competition, entrepreneurship and prosperity. This radicalism was influential when Tunisia’s constitution was written in late 2013 and January 2014, with many MPs brushing aside important reforms to liberate economic opportunity.

However, under the leadership of Beji Caid Essebi, 88, and an old comrade of Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba (1957-1987), the modernist Nidaa Tounes platform was fairly ‘shallow’ in terms of reforms, despite announcements on spending cuts and reforms to subsidies. Propositions were consensual with the usual slogans, and missed the crucial challenges Tunisia really faces. It will certainly not dismantle the existing heavy unionist regulatory framework, especially as the party will lead a coalition of partners, increasing the degree of compromise.

This lack of substance adds to the fact that some members of the party leadership belong to the President Ben Ali era - and some might say - system.

Many argue that it is good to have experienced politicians - Ennahda was criticised for its lack of experience. Yet, this could also create a sense of injustice and slow necessary reforms to establish the rule of law in Tunisia.

Failure to free the country economically will offer the most fertile ground for radical Islamism, especially with Tunisia’s young population - almost half of it aged under-30.

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