04.01.2021

Democracy without Political Parties?

Parliamentary democracy in Tunisia is in dire straits, and President Kais Saied’s radical ideas could wreak havoc on the political system.

Does inclination derive from practice? This does not seem to be the case for Tunisian democracy. Since 2011, when Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was driven from office, Tunisians have had plenty of time to get used to parliamentary democracy. After six “free and fair” national and local elections, Tunisia is regarded as a consolidated and functioning democracy.

However, Tunisians don’t seem to be very attached to their hard-won party democracy. Quite the opposite: Approval of both political parties and parliamentarianism is sinking. Surveys reveal that merely nine per cent of the population trust political parties and just 15 per cent, parliament. Young people in particular are displaying their disapproval – although plenty of them took to the streets in 2010 to demonstrate for democracy. How could they have become disaffected so quickly?

Democracy in Tunisia has clearly not fulfilled the revolution’s basic demands. Whether they consider the lack of jobs and future prospects or the persistent social and regional disparities, many Tunisians view their current socio-economic situation as worse than before the revolution. Political systems that produce such disastrous results have to contend with challenges to their legitimacy.

Added to that is what could be described as general discomfort with the political process. Following years of political stalemate, the democratic decision-making process has now largely been debunked.

Parties are perceived as serving to perpetuate power structures instead of representing the will of the people. Many Tunisians regard political parties as the epitome of corruption and nepotism.

This is fertile ground for the increasing popularity of conceptions that could create outcomes as revolutionary as the events of 2011. Kais Saied, the constitutional lawyer who ran for the presidency as an independent and won an upset victory, is promoting them. President Saied, who has held office since October 2019, is Tunisia’s most popular politician by far.

Saied’s electoral victory was due to both his unconditional and personal campaign against corruption and his message about radically reforming the political system and abolishing party democracy. For years, Saied has been claiming that political parties are a relic of the past and “doomed to die”. Young people are especially receptive to his model of direct democracy, in which individuals, not parties, would be elected to all levels of government. The new system would feature local councils and referenda and be headed by a president. Such ideas are not totally new to the region: They are very reminiscent of the Libyan People’s Jamahiriya of Muammar Gaddafi, although Saied lacks his religious-mystical approach.

It would be easy to dismiss this model as impractical with a tired smile and point to populism as an obvious and present danger. But Saied’s ideas should not be discounted. His success illustrates the profound crisis of democratic legitimacy worldwide. Nor should anyone close their eyes to the astonishing fact that a retired law professor is galvanising more young people than all of Tunisia’s 226 registered political parties together. Saied’s assured support from the powerful UGTT trade union federation means that inevitably there will be talk about holding a referendum to reform the constitution. Such a referendum would be sure to turn out well for Saied.

Tunisia’s political parties have yet to understand that their existence is at stake. If they can’t score any tangible successes soon, their standing will drop even further. Countering Saied’s radical ideas calls for equally radical measures. Regular elections clearly do not guarantee adequate political participation. Ensuring the future of parliamentary democracy in Tunisia requires boosting socioeconomic participation through redistribution and by breaking up cartels.

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Henrik Meyer is a scholar of politics and Middle Eastern Studies who has headed the Tunis office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) since 2015.

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