Tunisia’s political background
In 2011 Tunisia’s ‘Jasmine Revolution’ took place, ending years of dictatorship and setting the country on the path to democracy. This path has not been easy. Two political murders led to a prolonged deadlock in parliament, and the process of drawing up and agreeing a new constitution took much longer than expected. Nevertheless, the new constitution was finally agreed, and has been praised internationally as one of the most progressive in the Arab world.
In 2014, Tunisia held elections that were widely seen as free and fair. The result was a coalition government, consisting of a party associated with the previous regime together with a party that the old regime had declared illegal. A democratic system is therefore developing, but many challenges remain. For example, political parties tend to be based on leaders’ personalities rather than on a programme of policies. Also there is still distrust between the politicians, and many of them lack the skills and knowledge to work effectively in a multiparty democracy.
By the start of 2019, Tunisia was on its 6th government after the revolution, with several ministerial reorganizations. The constant change in this regard inhibits the ability for the nation to overcome persisting socioeconomic problems and pockets of corruption, as politicians’ attention is diverted towards political crisis management, as opposed to day-to-day policymaking. Tunisia has a round of parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for late 2019, which will test the strength of Tunisia’s democratic transition.
NIMD’s approach in Tunisia
NIMD started working in Tunisia in 2012 in collaboration with Demo Finland. The core aim of the programme has been building the capacity for the parties and politicians to work effectively in this new democracy, and to encourage interparty dialogue as part of this objective.
To achieve this, NIMD and Demo Finland set up the Tunisian School of Politics (TSoP) together with a local partner, Centre des Études Méditerranéennes Internationales (CEMI). Here, politicians work together in a multiparty setting to learn the skills and knowledge that they need to work together in a multiparty democracy. Examples of the subjects covered are constitutional law, policy analysis, and debate techniques. By learning together, parliamentarians and activists from across party lines get to know each other and get used to talking together, increasing mutual trust and encouraging interparty collaboration.
By the end of 2018, 11 cohorts of politicians (approximately 400 people) had completed a TSoP programme. TSoP also convenes Summer workshops for alumni to facilitate further interparty cooperation on policy issues that matter in Tunisia. Some alumni are given the further opportunity to participate in exchange visits to countries in Africa and Europe, where they can learn from their peers working in other contexts.
We have also set up an informal multiparty dialogue platform called ‘Couscous Politique’, where TSoP alumni informally discuss political issues while eating traditional Tunisian couscous. Since its start in 2016, Couscous Politique has regularly convened dialogue and debates between parties and civil society actors throughout the year, and will continue to do so in 2019.
Interparty Dialogue Platform
In 2016, political parties in Tunisia agreed to set up an interparty dialogue platform. The first meeting to discuss the platform was held in mid-April 2016 and facilitated by the Tunisia School of Politics, with the objective of providing the parties with a neutral zone where they could discuss issues of mutual concern. Even though Tunisia is the only country of the Arab Spring that is still committed to democracy, major political issues such as economic recession, terrorism, and youth issues remain.
Dialogue participants claimed that free exchange of ideas is needed in order to strengthen mutual relations between the parties and their members. “The common platform makes it possible to go beyond the surface, and then you will find that there is more agreement between political parties than people would think,” explained one of the politicians who participated in the first meeting of the interparty dialogue platform.