Tunisian Democratic Transition in Comparative Perspective


Tunisia’s fledgling democracy has weathered a parliamentary-prompted transfer of power. On Saturday, the parliament passed an unprecedented vote of no confidence in former Prime Minister Habib Essid, disbanding his government. On Wednesday, Youssef Chahed, a minister from the Essid government, announced that he has been nominated as the country’s new prime minister, Christian Science Monitor reports:

Some critics are skeptical that Chahed will be able to keep young people from losing “hope in the future,” as the nominee cautioned against on Wednesday. They say he has little political experience, having come into politics after the revolution, and point out that he is a distant relative of President Beji Caid Essebsi, who nominated him. ….However, Chahed has the support of five parties, including the two largest: his own, Nidaa Tounes (which was founded by the president), and the Islamist Ennahda. This means that his nomination will likely be approved in the parliamentary vote.

Critics took to social media sites to voice their opposition under the hashtag “keep your relatives at home” in Arabic, reports France24. Chahed is the nephew of Essebsi’s son-in-law, according to Tunisian media.

What might this mean for Tunisia in the long term? asks analyst Rashmee Roshan Lall:

In Tunisia’s case, there is little democratic dividend other than the process of orderly governmental change. The new prime minister is expected to have an altered role. Ministerial portfolios will also change, as will the structure of government. But that may solve nothing, least of all Tunisia’s lengthening list of pressing problems. These include a soaring public wage bill forced on the country by its trade unions, a system of crony capitalism that prevents investment and economic growth, and pervasive corruption and onerous regulation that inhibit entrepreneurship. The World Bank’s spring economic report recorded GDP growth of just 0.8 per cent last year and the contraction or stagnation of most sectors of the economy not least chemical industries, oil refining and non-manufacturing industries. Unemployment remains high at 15 per cent. A sense of discontent hangs like a pall.

In the midst of all this, what does changing prime ministers matter, even if by a democratic parliamentary mechanism? There can never be too much democracy but an excess of democratic posturing is not the answer either.

Columbia University’s Alfred Stepan, in “The Tunisian Democratic Transition in Comparative Perspective,” looks toward the impressive but still fragile democracy in post–Arab Spring Tunisia. Stepan [a regular contributor to The Journal of Democracy] notes a commonality with the transitions that produced effective democratic leadership in Indonesia, Spain, and Chile; like those nations, Tunisia has had a multiplicity of cooperating leaders, rather than a single “strong leader” or multiple conflictual leaderships. This he contrasts with the notable failures of democracy to take root in Egypt, Syria, and Libya, writing in the latest issue of Daedalus:

Many classic studies of leadership focus on strong leadership in the singular. This essay focuses on effective leaderships in the plural. Some of the greatest failures of democratic transitions (Egypt, Syria, Libya) have multiple but highly conflictual leaderships. However, a key lesson in democratization theory is that successful democratic transitions often involve the formation of a powerful coalition, within the opposition, of one-time enemies. This was accomplished in Chile, Spain, and Indonesia. In greater detail, this essay examines Tunisia, the sole reasonably successful democratic transition of the Arab Spring. In all four cases, religious tensions had once figured prominently, yet were safely transcended by the actions of multiple leaders via mutual ideological and religious accommodations, negotiated socioeconomic pacts, and unprecedented political cooperation. A multiplicity of cooperating leaders, rather than a single “strong leader,” produced effective democratic leadership in Tunisia, Indonesia, Spain, and Chile.



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