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Tunisia’s leader calls for electoral reform, acknowledges reasons for disappointment with government performance

Caid Essebsi left the future of the government led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed hanging as speculation about a reshuffle continues.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi called for a revision of the country’s electoral law but refrained from suggesting an expected constitutional reform to shore up presidential powers.

Caid Essebsi said a small team of experts would study the possibility of amending the elections law and report on its conclusions. Any change of the law would be applied to parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019, not the municipal vote scheduled for May 6.

Electoral regulations are considered among the main causes of political instability in Tunisia since 2011. The current electoral system makes it difficult for large parties to dominate the vote.

Analysts said a change in the voting law would be a first step towards revamping Tunisia’s political system, which divides powers between three branches of government. A new distribution of powers could only happen through amendments to the constitution. Caid Essebsi categorically excluded any such constitutional changes.

“What I noted with regret is that 79.9% of the Tunisians, especially young people, are unhappy about the situation,” Caid Essebsi told government, political, business and culture leaders at the presidential palace.

He contrasted the dire impression that most Tunisians have about the situation of the country since the uprising that overthrew President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 with the bright image the country enjoys abroad.

In a speech March 20 marking the 62nd anniversary of Tunisia’s independence from France, Caid Essebsi quoted from messages of Western leaders he received praising Tunisia’s political democratic achievements.

Many rights activists hail Tunisia as a success of democratic transition contrary to conflict in neighbouring Libya and bloodshed in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

“This contrast between the view at home and the bright picture abroad compels me to wonder: What is the matter here?” he said. “Democracy is not understood by all people at the same levels and in the practice of democracy we fell behind.”

Caid Essebsi said he saw reasons for the population’s disappointment over the performance of the country’s governments. “Since the revolution, for almost eight years we have fallen behind in many fields,” he said, citing debt that has soared from 40% of gross domestic product in 2010 to 70% early this year.

He also mentioned the burden of civil service salaries. The total payroll of the government’s employees has more than doubled since 2010.

Giving even starker indications of regression in economic and social indicators since 2010, he noted that economic growth rates, which averaged 4.5% a year until 2010, have shrunk to an annual average of 1.5% for the last seven years.

The value of the dinar has depreciated about 45% against the euro since 2011, he added.

“The output of phosphates declined from 8.1 million tonnes on average per year until the end of 2010 to 3.1 million tonnes annually on average during the seven years from 2011,” Caid Essebsi said, adding that estimates of the losses from phosphates fall in productions for the period were at $4 billion.

He said tourism, a key earner of foreign currency with phosphate, was adversely affected by two jihadist attacks in 2015 before recovering since 2016. Caid Essebsi said estimates of losses from the tourism downturn were at $4 billion.

“Together the 10 billion dinars [$4 billion] from phosphates and the 10 billion dinars [$4 billion] from tourism would have helped us make the situation much better,” said Caid Essebsi.

“We understand the frustration of the people. The state owes them an explanation.”

Tunisia had built a diverse, market-oriented economy that had been cited as a model of socio-economic progress in the Middle East and Africa in previous decades. It is now struggling, however, with an array of social and economic challenges.

Caid Essebsi left the future of the government led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed hanging, as speculation about a reshuffle continues.

It was significant that the Tunisian president uttered no word of support for Chahed, who was shown on state television shuffling on his chair as he listened to Caid Essebsi.

“No official should see himself as entitled to remaining forever on his position,”  said the Tunisian president.

A committee with representatives from the main trade union, employers’ group and political parties was recently established to mull the government’s priorities for the 20 months before parliamentary and presidential elections.

“The situation is difficult. The situation is really difficult. We cannot blame one side or the other for the situation. We are all responsible but we must find a way out of the crisis,” said Caid Essebsi.

He added that as president, he was bound to listen to all views, including from the opposition, before deciding in which direction he should steer the country’s priorities.

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