“When you impoverish the poor and middle class you undermine democracy,” said Jihen Chandoul, an economist and co-founder of the Tunisian Observatory of Economy, a research institute. “What’s hurting the democratic process are austerity measures we’ve been asked to implement to access loans. Tunisian democracy is in danger.”
It is a pattern that has played out around the world, in Latin America, Asia and recently Greece, as the International Monetary Fund and other Western lenders demand that governments balance their budgets and open their economies. Those policies often produce jarring hardship and political upheaval that can undermine support for the very kind of democratic and capitalist systems the West is trying to build.
In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, those measures are doubly biting for a people who had harbored such great hopes for a fairer society in one of the Arab world’s few democracies.
Protests against higher taxes and rising prices broke out across the country in January after new economic policies advocated by the International Monetary Fund and Tunisia’s Western sponsors took effect. Following their guidance, Tunisia slashed the budget deficit at the expense of popular demands for jobs, adopted free trade policies that may hurt Tunisian producers and allowed a devaluation of the currency that has raised food and fuel prices.
Tunisian economists, activists, and politicians cited a dozen more examples of what they described as free-market-style economic prescriptions that they say have worsened the lives of ordinary people and damaged faith in the country’s nascent democracy. One test of that faith may come Sunday, when Tunisians head to the polls for the first municipal elections since the 2010 uprising.
Tunisia is in poor economic shape. Its gross domestic product is growing at a tepid 2 percent, while unemployment remains high at 15.5 percent, and about 30 percent among the young, many of whom while away their days smoking water pipes at cafes with little hope of being able to move out of their parents’ homes. The Tunisian dinar has fallen about 40 percent compared to the euro and dollar since 2011, increasing prices for fuel and almost all consumer goods. International ratings agencies have repeatedly lowered Tunisia’s creditworthiness, straining the government’s ability to borrow to invest in jobs or public works programs.
According to a poll conducted late last year by the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based democracy advocacy organization, 83 percent of Tunisians say the country is going in the wrong direction, with 64 percent citing the economy or unemployment as their biggest worry.