Consensus Politics Has Failed Tunisia

An opposition boycott of Saturday’s election may be too little, too late.

By , a researcher who focuses on democratization in the Middle East.
Demonstrators take part in a rally against President Kais Saied, called for by the opposition National Salvation Front coalition, in Tunis, Tunisia, on Dec. 10.
Demonstrators take part in a rally against President Kais Saied, called for by the opposition National Salvation Front coalition, in Tunis, Tunisia, on Dec. 10.
Demonstrators take part in a rally against President Kais Saied, called for by the opposition National Salvation Front coalition, in Tunis, Tunisia, on Dec. 10. FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images

On Dec. 17, Tunisia will elect a new parliament, the third since Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime fell nearly 12 years ago. But this election is nothing like the last two, which were held in 2014 and 2019. For starters, Tunisia’s parliament has been suspended for the past year and a half. Then, in September, President Kais Saied decreed a new electoral law that limits political parties’ ability to campaign for parliamentary seats and granted him the right to essentially ban candidates at will. In response, the opposition has announced that it is boycotting the election.

Saturday’s vote will change little about the actual distribution of power in Tunisia. Instead, it stands to further solidify Saied’s personalistic rule through a facade of democratic politics. Just 12 years after deposing its longtime dictator, Tunisia once again finds itself in thrall to authoritarianism.

Tunisia is not alone. Authoritarianism is on the rise globally, a trend that political scientists often ascribe to polarization. In this narrative, polarization leads to a dangerous breakdown in democratic norms as competing sides try to defeat one another by any means necessary. But that is only one side of the story. In Tunisia, democracy broke down not because there was too much polarization but because there was too little of it.

On Dec. 17, Tunisia will elect a new parliament, the third since Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime fell nearly 12 years ago. But this election is nothing like the last two, which were held in 2014 and 2019. For starters, Tunisia’s parliament has been suspended for the past year and a half. Then, in September, President Kais Saied decreed a new electoral law that limits political parties’ ability to campaign for parliamentary seats and granted him the right to essentially ban candidates at will. In response, the opposition has announced that it is boycotting the election.

Saturday’s vote will change little about the actual distribution of power in Tunisia. Instead, it stands to further solidify Saied’s personalistic rule through a facade of democratic politics. Just 12 years after deposing its longtime dictator, Tunisia once again finds itself in thrall to authoritarianism.

Tunisia is not alone. Authoritarianism is on the rise globally, a trend that political scientists often ascribe to polarization. In this narrative, polarization leads to a dangerous breakdown in democratic norms as competing sides try to defeat one another by any means necessary. But that is only one side of the story. In Tunisia, democracy broke down not because there was too much polarization but because there was too little of it.

The populist backlash that brought Saied to power in 2019 was a reaction to the gridlock of years of consensus politics. Tunisia’s largest political party, the Islamist Ennahda, had long clung to a diffuse grand coalition and failed to get any notable legislation passed—let alone implement the reforms the new democracy needed to safeguard its institutions against despotism. Saied campaigned on a populist party platform and promised to protect the people’s will against the corrupt machinery of established party politics.

The political scientist (and Foreign Policy co-founder) Samuel P. Huntington argued in 1991 that Tunisia—then still a dictatorship—was a prime candidate for democratization. He offered one crucial piece of advice to would-be democratizers during times of political transition: avoid conflict at all costs. Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, would have been the star student in Huntington’s class. When democracy dawned in Tunisia two decades later, Ghannouchi returned to Tunisia from his exile in London determined to help his country consolidate its democracy.

With Ghannouchi returned a generation of opposition activists—both Islamist and secular—eager to shape the fate of the country’s nascent democracy. In 2011, Tunisians elected a National Constituent Assembly tasked with writing a new constitution. A coalition of parties called the Troika—Ennahda, which led the alliance; the secular Congress for the Republic; and the social democratic Ettakatol—headed the country’s government for the next three years until the parliament was created in 2014.

Most of Ennahda’s leaders had personally suffered decades of imprisonment, torture, or exile under Ben Ali. Among Tunisia’s dissidents, Islamists were more heavily persecuted than anyone else. Still, these very victims of repression quickly made peace with the representatives of the old regime. “After my release from prison, I forgot everything that happened,” former Ennahda Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali told me in 2020.

In government, Ennahda went out of its way to foster compromise and accommodation. In 2011, the Islamists had won the elections to the National Constituent Assembly in a landslide. But wary of being perceived as monopolizing power, Ghannouchi chose to form the Troika coalition, which boasted a nearly two-thirds majority in the body. When faced with a protest movement directed against Islamist political influence two years later, Ennahda Prime Minister Ali Larayedh in January 2014 voluntarily agreed to step down from power. That same month, Ennahda’s leadership dropped its demands for including references to Islamic law in the country’s new constitution and instead approved a constitution hailed as the most progressive in the Arab world.

In late 2013, Ghannouchi personally intervened in the National Constituent Assembly to veto a transitional justice law that would have curtailed the influence of the old elites. A year later, Ennahda desperately pursued a coalition with the secular Nidaa Tounes, a party headed by a figure affiliated with the Ben Ali regime. Despite coming a close second in the 2014 elections, Ennahda contented itself with a single ministerial post out of 26.

Even if overtly stable, Tunisia’s unity government utterly failed to deliver on any of its promises. At times, the ruling coalition—which represented 82 percent of seats in the parliament—literally seemed unable to act: Between 2014 and 2019, more than 80 bills sat on the floor of the parliament waiting to be considered by lawmakers. Wary of ruffling any feathers, both Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes declined to push their legislative priorities. For instance, in 2015, Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes created a constitutional court. But four years later, they had still not chosen its 12 members in an effort to avoid internal contention.

As a result, the Tunisian public’s trust in their country’s new political system fell rapidly. In 2019, Ennahda voters, furious with their leaders for accommodating the old establishment, left the party in droves for the breakaway Karama coalition, a hard-line Islamist faction opposed to compromise with the country’s secular forces. Ennahda’s vote share fell from 37 percent in the 2011 National Constituent Assembly elections to 28 percent and 20 percent in the 2014 and 2019 legislative elections, respectively. And with a ruling coalition made up of all the country’s biggest parties, Tunisians saw the shortcomings of the government not as a result of one party’s decisions but as a symptom of a failed political system overall. By 2018, 81 percent of Tunisians said they felt disconnected from all political parties, according to an Afrobarometer survey. Support for democracy had dropped from 71 percent in 2013 to 46 percent in only five years.

When it came time to elect a new president in 2019, Tunisians had had enough of consensus, and Saied—unaffiliated with any political party—won in a landslide. That year’s parliamentary elections did not give any party a majority, leaving the legislative body disunited and powerless to counter the new president’s ambitions.

Over the three years that followed, many Tunisians cheered on the president’s ever-tightening grip on a political system they had come to despise. In July 2021, 10 years after Tunisia’s revolution, angry protesters once again flocked to the capital’s Kasbah Square—except this time, the crowds were calling for an end to democracy. Saied obliged, dismissing the prime minister and suspending the parliament. Two months after this self-coup, Saied awarded himself all the powers the parliament had previously held, and in February, he sacked all members of the Supreme Judicial Council, a body that had promoted judicial independence. The president vowed that his power grab would “save the state” from crisis and disarray.

Ennahda, still obsessed with compromise, has shown itself to be powerless in responding to a president who is anything but. Without a functioning constitutional court, nothing stood in the way of Saied’s self-coup. His new constitution, approved by plebiscite in July, grants the president the right to appoint ministers and judges by decree with no legislative or judicial approval. Meanwhile, over the past year, Tunisia’s police and secret services have jailed numerous journalists and arrested politicians on trumped-up charges of corruption or terrorism. Tunisian parties’ insistence on compromise and accommodation led them to lose to a leader who tolerates neither.

Even following Saied’s self-coup in July 2021, Ennahda’s leadership has been slow to stray from its accommodating stance. At first, a muted statement described Saied’s power grab as an “opportunity for reform.” Then, more than 100 senior party officials resigned in protest against the party’s failure to confront authoritarianism. Ennahda remains rife with internal division, and increasing numbers are demanding that Ghannouchi make way for a new generation of leaders.

That growing cohort within Ennahda seems to realize that consensus politics is no longer the order of the day. Together with other opposition parties, Ghannouchi’s Ennahda has boycotted this Saturday’s legislative elections and refused to recognize the results of July’s constitutional referendum. Ennahda joined the National Salvation Front, a motley collection of some 20 groups and parties spearheaded by leftist leader Ahmed Najib Chebbi. The National Salvation Front seeks to pressure the government into launching a dialogue with the opposition.

Tunisia’s story is a common one. Populism flourishes when mainstream political parties converge, making authoritarianism look like the only real alternative to a corrupt political system. In the 1990s, the neoliberal turn of social democratic parties across Europe eventually led to the rise of populists from France’s National Rally to the Freedom Party of Austria. And before Venezuelan populist firebrand Hugo Chávez took power on a platform of radical change in 1999, the so-called “partyarchy” in Caracas had long been beset by the inefficiencies and corruption of consensus politics.

It is time to update Huntington’s old democratization playbook: Instead of avoiding conflict, politicians should display their disagreements openly and respectfully. Tunisia’s recent fall into authoritarianism comes as a cautionary tale: Extreme polarization can break a democracy—but so can excessive consensus.

Johannes Lang is a researcher who focuses on democratization in the Middle East.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.