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.

To target such inequalities, the current interim government released an economic plan in late September, which is meant to guide efforts after the election -- though there is no legal obligation for a new Tunisian government to follow it. The plan calls for the creation of 300,000 emergency jobs to be created to give the economy an immediate shock. It predicts reaching a growth rate of 6.3 percent and calls for reductions in unemployment from its current level -- at nearly a fifth of the population -- to between 10.5% and 8.5% by 2016.

Achieving those goals would require immediate government spending, financed by international credit, on things such as infrastructure and high-tech services. The foreign minister announced this fall, for example, that the government was seeking $125 billion in loans from the World Bank and African Development Bank in the next five years. The credit has so far been forthcoming -- a fact that may even have cushioned the economic drop. The European Union, for example, has promised to provide some $4 billion over the coming three years. "Tunisia's economy has tanked recently and so it needs an injection of money," says Michael Mann, a spokesman for the EU-Tunisia Joint Task Force.

"The losses were not felt as strong as they might have been because international credit has been very generous," says Ahmed Ounnaies, a Tunisian diplomat who briefly served as foreign minister in the first transitional government after the fall of the ousted Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. He calls the debt the country has taken on as "the price of revolution."

Exports to the European Union -- which the African Development Bank reports make up 80 percent of the country's outward trade -- could also help. So far, these have held up in spite of the broader economic slump, argues Sabavala, though she worries that the EU's own debt crisis could put the country's recovery in jeopardy. Libya's emergence from revolution also bodes well for Tunisia's economy, as the two have a long history of trade. "Hopefully the Libyan economy will be able to pick up," Sabavala notes, "The rebuilding offers opportunities to go back into Libya to find jobs."

And Tunisia's fundamentals -- the things that have historically made this country one of the region's top performers -- remain. "Tunisia is still well positioned with its proximity to EU and also its access to Africa," explains Sabavala. "It has a highly educated and young workforce and most speak at least two languages, Arabic and French."

Still, the road to economic recovery will prove a challenge -- and at least as important to Tunisia's future as the politics that guide it. Dajani notes that businesses will be reluctant to take decisions until they see a stable administration in place. "Capitalism is a bit of a coward when it comes to things like that: investors are waiting for political clarity."

Getting the clarity couldn't be more urgent: the economy, perhaps more than anything else, could be what determines whether Tunisia's revolution proceeds at all -- or whether the country's youth are inspired once again to the come to the streets. Polling by Gallup's Abu Dhabi Center released after the revolution shows of a fast-devolving economic situation in the country prior to the January 14 revolution. Dalia Mogahed, director of the center, now argues that "securing the revolution" is a question of economic change.

So far, however, this hasn't dominated the political conversation in more than a polemic way, analysts and candidates alike admit. And when voters go to the polls, very few of them are likely to have taken the time to find and read parties' economic plans. They will have to vote on promises heard on the campaign trail and trust in their candidates.

"There is incredible sadness in Tunisia," says Abdelfattah Mourou, an independent candidate running in Tunis. "[The political class] needs to come down to that reality."