Analysis: Should Tunisia go the Polish way?

June 5, 2016

Published on (1.4.2015)


In October 2014 Tunisians went to the polls for the legislative elections (Photo credit: Ahmed Medien)


One could easily argue that Tunisia and Poland are too different historically and politically to ever be compared with one another. Yet, the process of democratisation in Eastern Europe after 1989 led to various political similarities with the Arab Spring: a political compromise, the transformation of the old establishment and the place of religion in the public sphere. Could Poland inspire Tunisia?


On the southern seaside of the Mediterranean, Tunisia, the smallest country in the Maghreb region of North Africa, has just taken a few big steps towards democracy. The Tunisian people elected Beji Caid Essebsi as president in December. A coalition government was formed, comprising the secular party Nidaa Tounes, the Islamist party Ennahda, the Free Patriotic Union and Prospects for Tunisia as well as the National Front. The elections and creation of a national unity government, together with the recently adopted progressive constitution, a new parliament and significant signs of consensus amongst political elites, seem to prove that today democracy has fully institutionalised itself in Tunisia. A remarkable result, especially considering the way revolutions went in Syria, Libya or even Egypt. Still, some Tunisians and international observers worry that the victory of Essebsi, a politician who served under the autocratic regime of Ben Ali as a parliament speaker, does not embody prosperity, but instead a rather weak and possibly ill future for the country. Additionally, a number of events, like assassinations of anti-Islamist politicians Chokri Belaid in February 2013 and Mohamed Brahmi in July 2013, but mostly the latest gunmen attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis proved that the jihadi threat in Tunisia is a real obstacle on the way to stability.


In the meantime on the European continent, a former prime minister of the Republic of Poland, Donald Tusk, from the Civic Platform party, has just taken office as the president of the European Council. This institution of the European Union (EU), which gathers the heads of state and government of the 28 EU member states. Tusk’s nomination took place on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a symbol of the Cold War, which had divided Europe into two separate areas for almost 45 years. Back then, democracy reigned on the West side of the wall, while the authoritarian regimes influenced – at least partly – by the Soviet Union were situated on the East side. Due to this division, Poland was part of the Eastern authoritarian block from 1945 until 1989. However, now, 25 years later, it is a successful model of a democratic transition.


While in fact Poland and Tunisia are totally different culturally, politically, geographically and socially, the main thing they actually do have in common gives both countries and their comparison a truly unique place in world’s history: both countries initiated a motion of political and social changes that spilled over into neighbouring countries, influencing their respective regions.The revolutions were marked by difficult economic situations in both cases. In Tunisia the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17th became a catalyst for the protests that toppled former dictator Ben Ali.  In Poland, the catalysing spark came from a trade union movement called Solidarność (Solidarity), which had been founded in 1980 under the leadership of Lech Wałęsa. The movement was first considered an illegal opposition group and was therefore politically repressed. But after years of resistance, the movement got included into the so-called Round Table Talks in 1989. These talks, held between the Polish communist regime and Solidarność, resulted in the first semi-free elections, which took place on June 4th and 18th of the same year.




Political consensus and parliamentary elections


Both countries have worked out a political consensus in order to institutionalise a growing democracy. The first free parliamentary elections in Tunisia in October 2011 brought victory to the Islamist Ennahda party. Shortly after, the Tunisian constituent assembly elected human rights activist Moncef Marzouki for president. The stability created by these elections was soon challenged by protests against the Islamist-led government. Luckily Ennahda agreed to hand over power to an independent government, to maintain peace and the country’s security. New elections took place in October 2014: Nidaa Tounes secured 85 seats and Ennahda 69 seats. Finally, in February 2015 a new multi-party government was composed in which previous opponents created a coalition.


Going back to 1989, to the first semi-free elections in Poland, the Polish United Workers Party (PZPR) and its satellite parties – from the old establishment – were guaranteed 65 % of the seats in the lower house. The elections to the upper house and the rest of the lower house were free and the Solidarność coalition won almost all of those seats. The PZPR’s leader, General Jaruzelski, was elected as president by the National Assembly (lower and upper house). Interestingly (and ironically), Jaruzelski was the one who imposed a martial law in 1981 to control any illegal opposition back then, which was made mainly of parties affiliated to the Solidarność movement.


Direct presidential elections


In both countries, the direct presidential elections were held in order to complete the democratic transition. Lech Wałęsa became Poland’s new president in December 1990. In Tunisia the direct presidential elections, held in December 2014, resulted in the victory of Beji Caid Essebsi, former official in Ben Ali’s administration, who won 55,68 % of the votes. One might notice a significant difference here: in Poland the elected president was an opposition leader, whereas in Tunisia the first free presidential elections were won by an official of the old regime. A possible explanation for this different electoral outcome lies in the fact that there was a clear ‘us versus them’ situation in Poland: the Solidarność coalition versus the old regime’s coalition. As mentioned already in Tunisia, there is a third controversial political actor on top of ‘the regime versus opposition narrative’: a religious group. Even though in both countries, religion has been a powerful force influencing political moods, in Poland the Catholic Church had no direct political aspirations as such but played a uniting role in the country’s transition. It is quite the opposite in Tunisia. One might ask: are Tunisians more afraid of Islamists than of politicians from the previous regime? Will Essebsi’s win result in the comeback of the old order, or will various political factions within Nidaa Tounes that aim for a cooperation with Ennahda continue to pursue their agenda of national unity? Will actions of Islamic extremist strengthen the coalition or weaken it and how will they influence the public?


By looking at what happened further with the democratic transition in Poland, we might find some answers to these questions. Quickly after 1989 the PZPR transformed itself into a modern, pro-democratic, pro-Europe political force, rightly following its political instinct. In their opinion, a change was inevitable and playing along was more beneficial than remaining rigid. With a new name – the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) – and focusing on the younger generation taking a lead in the party, the old establishment gained enough credibility to win a meaningful number of seats in the parliament, already in 1993 and in many elections after. They were also able to present their own candidate, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, for president in 1995. He lead Poland in two consecutive terms. Currently the SLD is in the opposition and its popularity has again been decreasing over the last few years. Nevertheless, the old establishment got consolidated into a well-functioning democracy. Yet, the Polish political culture is still not free from its past. Politicians from the old regime becoming part of the democratic public sphere have always been seen as an obstacle in many political and intellectual circles, resulting in controversial situations. The polish Catholic Church even if not directly active at the political scene, still has and uses its informal yet powerful influence on a large number of traditional people in Poland, holding popular media outlets to voice their stands on various social and political issues.


A rocky road ahead


The aftermath of Poland’s transition to democracy seems positive, even though some might argue that the country could have done it better. However, it is important to notice that any system change is a long-lasting, multi-angled and multi-levelled process, often requiring choices to be made between conflicting imperatives. Therefore, Tunisia still has a rocky road ahead, and political compromises that gain the approval of Tunisia’s society have to be part of that bumpy road, especially concerning the external threat such as that of the extremism of the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria, which does its best to support its allies in all countries worldwide.

The success of Tunisian transition will depend mainly on the tolerance and trust of the Tunisian people, but most of all on the will of political elites to transform, modernise and be legitimate in the eyes of their people. First of all, Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda will have to continue their symbolic and pragmatic, yet extremely meaningful cooperation within the multi-party government of national unity. Secondly, Nidaa Tounes will have to keep reforming itself, showing no signs of sentiment to the practices of the old regime. Thirdly, Ennahda will have to get a good strategy on how to represent and voice Muslim communities in Tunisia. They cannot leave space for Islamic extremists to gain any sympathisers amongst them and assure secularists that their place is within the democratic state.



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© 2017 by Katarzyna Mortoń