Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s announcement that he will not seek a fifth term as Algerian president has once again raised questions of gerontocracy and failed governance in Africa. Tunisian head of state Béji Caïd Essebsi benefits from a degree of popular legitimacy but many citizens are concerned that the spry ‘BCE’ at 92 is too old to stand again when presidential elections are held in December. Before that, his fractured Nidaa Tounès (NT) will come under a strong challenge from the Islamist Ennahda party, now the two major parties’ alliance has broken down, and from other rivals, when parliamentary elections are held in October. Presidential son Hafedh Caïd Essebsi’s leadership ambitions have foundered on lack of popular enthusiasm and resistance from within NT. BCE may contest the election, probably against an Ennahda candidate – its 77-year-old leader Rachid Ghannouchi has indicated he will not stand – and the prime minister he appointed in August 2016, 43-year-old Youssef Chahed.
The dynamic, partisan politics that have typified Tunisia since Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in 2011 have made it a democratic success story by some measures: Freedom House classifies Tunisia as the only ‘free’ country in North Africa, where Morocco is deemed ‘partially free’ and the rest ‘not free’. External financial support, capacity-building and security assistance will continue – not least since Tunisia “recently became the number one country of origin for illegal immigration into the European Union”, as the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s latest review put it – but may not solve problems that are undermining Tunisia’s prospects for encouraging potential investors.
Macroeconomic indicators are unpromising: growth (at an estimated 2.5% of GDP) is constrained by a difficult business environment; inflation is rising – at an average 7.3% in 2018, according to Banque Centrale de Tunisie (BCT) and investment remains depressed. The dinar has depreciated sharply against the euro and dollar, as BCT governor Marouane Abassi has struggled to maintain monetary stability. Three interest rate increases in the past year make conventional economic sense, supported by the IMF, but are unpopular. IMF calls for a public sector pay squeeze are countered by the powerful Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail’s efforts to enforce the government’s commitment to link wages to price rises. Its secretary-general, Noureddine Taboubi, has led popular protests against proposed privatisations and subsidy cuts, running contrary to the IMF’s calls for a “budget reorientation to accommodate a higher energy subsidy bill” due to costlier oil imports.
Chronic unemployment and stubbornly low living standards in marginalised regions have been major issues for governments since independence and show no signs of improving. While politicians in Tunis focus on getting elected, the country boils with resentments, which are reflected in persistent labour disputes and localised protests. Lack of confidence at government’s delivery of services was highlighted by outrage over the deaths from septic shock of 12 babies at the state Rabta maternity hospital in Tunis, which on 10 March cost health minister Abderraouf Cherif his job.
Despite his government’s poor showing Chahed remains relatively popular, due to his dynamic approach and efforts to tackle corruption; many Tunisians believe the PM’s efforts have been undermined by ‘vested interests’. Whoever controls the National Assembly after October or sits in the Carthage presidency from January 2020 will have to tackle these core issues if Tunisia’s drift is to be overcome and the risk of greater convulsions reduced.
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