Scholar Larry Diamond in a talk at the University of Denver stated that the world is entering a phase of ‘Democratic Recession’ and that out of the 49 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa 18 are classified as electoral democracies. He credits this to the early 1990’s democratic backsliding that occurred in places like Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Mali and Tanzania. He indicated that this set the precedence for a weak formation of electoral democracy and the diminished existence of a liberal democracy in the continent. However, Diamond surprisingly noted that the transition to democracy in Tunisia should lauded as a successful emerging democracy today. Does this analysis seem premature? Does Tunisia really hold the institutional capacity to become a liberal democracy in the near future?
Pre- Arab Spring Tunisia possessed low levels of political and electoral rights. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s autocratic regime limited civil society participation and created a lack of transparency or accountability within the state. Economic indicator signaled that the country was performing well based on classics economic measures (such as GDP per capita). However, further analysis of the individual’s well-being demonstrated that there was limited access to employment made worse by increasing levels of youth unemployment. There was a lack of satisfaction with basic infrastructure and access to institutional structures (like schooling and health facilities). This paradox between the rising national growth rate and diminishing Tunisian standard of living was what created the environment for Mohamed Bouaziz’s revolutionary protest and the eventual ‘spark’ of the Arab Spring.
For the past three years, Tunisia experienced crippling internal conflicts due to terrorism, corruption and lack of overall rule of law. And it wasn’t until January 25, 2014 that the newly elected Tunisian National Constituent Assembly approved the country’s first democratic constitution after 23 years of Ben Ali’s autocratic rule. This type of governance shift sends positive signals to the neighboring countries of Egypt and Libya. Beyond the regional impact this shift to democratic consolidation sends positive signals to the rest of the world. For the time being, Tunisia serves as a success story in the post-Arab Spring world.
Returning to Larry Diamond’s initial analysis about the lack of liberal democracy in Africa. If there are no true liberal democracies in Africa, then does Tunisia posses the necessary elements to become one? Or are there pre-disposed conditions within African states that limit the possibility of one existing? And why does Tunisia serve as the beacon of hope for democracy as opposed to Ghana or Senegal?