02142016Sun
Last update: Sun, 14 Feb 2016 01pm

In rural Tunisia, economic malaise weighs on voters

In the western Tunisian city of Kasserine, campaign posters plastered on walls make plain what many voters want from Sunday's parliamentary election - jobs, whose scarcity has fuelled unrest and militancy. Alongside portraits of would-be lawmakers and party logos, scores of young people have posted resumes, hoping to land job offers to lift them out of the economic malaise that has troubled Tunisia's democratic evolution.

Unemployment in the olive and fruit farming region bordering Algeria is almost double the national 15 percent. But since the revolution the region has also been blighted by violence linked to Tunisia's low-intensity conflict with Islamist militants. Four years after the uprising that ousted Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and inspired the "Arab Spring" revolts, Tunisia is well on its way to democracy, with a new constitution, multi-party competition and a broad compromise among its leaders.

Sunday's ballot for a new 217-member parliament promises to consolidate a transition seen as model in a region where other "Arab Spring" nations who ousted long-ruling leaders in 2011 still struggle with polarisation and violence. But Tunisia, heavily reliant on foreign tourism and remittances from overseas, has yet to deliver on the promise of economic growth, jobs and opportunities that partly inspired its 2011 revolution against a corrupt and repressive regime.

Nowhere is that frustration and the risks it poses for Tunisia clearer than in the interior, in cities like Kasserine where even before the revolt unemployment and marginalisation were rife and investment scarce. For months, thousands of Tunisian troops have been encircling the mountains trying to flush out militants who have attacked checkpoints and patrols and even struck a minister's house in Kasserine in an assassination bid.

"We have nothing here expect unemployment and terrorism," said Ibtissam Samaali, 30, an accounting graduate jobless for a year. "We see no projects, no investments. Kasserine was always forgotten and is still forgotten now." Like others in the city, Samaali said she will still put her faith in an election most analysts expect neither the leading Islamist party Ennahda or secular rivals Nidaa Tounes to win outright, meaning a coalition government is likely.

Even so, Tunisian officials say there is enough consensus among the parties on the need for swift economic reform and job creation once lawmakers decide on the new government, probably after presidential elections in November. Tunisia's premier told Reuters this month that the economy needs at least three more years of painful reforms, including tax changes and subsidy cuts, to revive growth after the damage caused by the 2011 revolt.

Should the parliament elections and transition to a new government go smoothly, investment could revive, and help spur economic growth back to the 5 percent pace which analysts believe is needed to cut unemployment, now around 15 percent. Tunisia expects growth of between 2.3 and 2.5 percent this year, but has begun to slash subsidies to trim the budget deficit and impose new taxes, the kind of reforms requested by international lenders providing vital backing.

"A unity government will be in a strong position to implement fiscal austerity measures, including the reform of the subsidy system, as requested by the IMF," said Riccardo Fabiani, an analyst at Eurasia Group. Economic benefits from the revolution are a sensitive question for many young Tunisians. An act of self-immolation by Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed graduate reduced to selling fruit and vegetables in the town of Sidi Bouzid, sparked the unrest that led to the uprising.

Cutting back on subsidies also carries political risks. Last year in Kasserine rioting broke out and one man was killed in clashes when the government announced a tax hike on vehicles, one of several initial reforms. The IMF warned in a report last month that social tensions, strikes and demonstrations may slow the pace of reforms. "I'll vote for those who will provide us jobs," said Ibrahim Assadi, an unemployed man sitting in a cafe. "Our patience will not last long and Kasserine will have a second revolution." Many Tunisians are now more worried about economic development and the high cost of living than political gains, but for Kasserine those questions are more pressing. Regional governor Atef Boughatess estimates local unemployment at around 26 percent.

Copyright Reuters, 2014