In Revolutionary Tunisia's First Real Election, One Issue Trumps All: Jobs

Parties and voters, both unfamiliar with the new system that begins today with an election, are struggling to find and agree on solutions to the worsening economy

tunisia oct23 p.jpg


TUNIS, Tunisia -- Soutlaya Beu Cheikh can sum up Tunisian voters' priorities in just one word: "Vivre," she says in French -- the ability to make a living. During the last three weeks, she traveled on behalf of the Center of Arab Woman for Training and Research throughout her native Tunisia's rural south, where she observed the electoral campaign in the country's first ever democratic election. She visited a diverse string of cities, industrial hubs, rural towns, and villages. One thing, she says, was the same: "[Voters say] it's all about lowering unemployment," she says. "The revolution starts now."

As Tunisians go to the polls today, they vote to select more than 200 members of a Constituent Assembly, the next phase of the country's democratic transition. That body will work to draft a new Constitution and appoint a new government. They will set the rules of Tunisia's future and set the tone for its development.

Yet over the last three weeks of official campaigning, there has been surprisingly little discussion about the single most important issue that analysts and voters alike are thinking about: the economy. Instead, questions of identity, women's rights, and the role of religion in the state have dominated this campaign.

"The most important thing, which I'm not sure a lot of the political parties have gotten is [the question of the] economy, because that will sort out everything else," says Adel Dajani, founder of International Maghreb Merchant Bank, the first such outfit in the region. The economy, he argues, "will sort out questions like the productive role of women. It's a very simple message, but I haven't really seen any strong economic manifesto by any of the parties."

On the eve of Tunisia's first democratic election, the country got a painful reminder of just how necessary such economic plans will be in the country's next stage of democratic transition. The World Economic Forum's Arab Competitiveness Report saw the country dropping eight places in a worldwide ranking of attractiveness for international investment, something at which Tunisia had long excelled. Economic growth this year is predicted to contract slightly or hover around zero. Net foreign direct investment is also down to just a tenth of what it was in 2010 -- which accounts for the flight of some 900 billion dinars of capital (about $633 billion).

Perhaps most potently, the unemployment rate is soaring at 18.5 percent and may be as high as 30 percent among university graduates, meaning that the same economic concerns that inspired Tunisians to hit the streets in in early 2011 have actually worsened, exacerbated by the months of political upheaval. "For me, it's all about the recovery of employment," says Aziz Ben Sendrine, a voter outside a mosque in central Tunis. "We are Muslims, and we should be proud," he says of identity questions raised during the campaign. "But there's no work."

Parties competing for votes in the Constituent Assembly do have economic platforms on paper -- though they have remained largely undiscussed and analysts worry that they rely on many of the same tactics the previous regime had used. "If you look at parties manifestos, with the exception of the far left parties, most have the same economic objectives: to reduce unemployment and increase infrastructure in interior," says Ayesha Sabavala, Tunisia analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Those tactics were successful in raising Tunisia's economic growth rate and other macroeconomic indicators, but they left vast regional and societal inequalities throughout Tunisia. The country's south, for example, has stagnated even as the wealthier coast flourished.

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Elizabeth Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East.

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