Repressed opponents, an illusion of pluralism and an electoral plebiscite: will the vote which ended in the triumphant re-election of Vladimir Putin set the tone for the next presidential election in Tunisia, scheduled for fall 2024?

For the first time, the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE), responsible for organizing the polls in Tunisia, signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Central Electoral Commission of the Russian Federation on March 15. And it is in this context that Farouk Bouasker, president of the ISIE, went to Moscow to participate in the international mission to observe the Russian presidential election.

This unprecedented electoral agreement between Tunisia and Russia is part of a dynamic of “warming” of diplomatic relations between the two countries, analyzes Hamza Meddeb, researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center. Tunisian diplomacy, formerly far from the Russian sphere of influence, has for several months displayed a desire for rapprochement, marked in particular by the visit of the Tunisian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nabil Ammar, to Moscow in September 2023, followed by that of his counterpart , Sergei Lavrov, in Tunis in December of the same year.

This rapprochement comes at a time when relations have hardened between Tunis and its Western partners, notably following the rejection of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) whose “diktats” had been deemed “unacceptable” by Kaïs Saïed in April 2023, after months of negotiations. In October 2023, it is the turn of the European Union to attract the wrath of the Tunisian president who deemed aid of 127 million euros announced by Brussels “insignificant”, just a few months after the signing of a memorandum of understanding to cooperate in particular in the fight against irregular migration.

“Strategic opportunism”

In fact, Russia became Tunisia’s sixth trading partner in 2023, while it was ranked seventeenth in 2021, with a significant increase – of the order of 140% during the first ten months of the year 2023 – imports of Russian products such as oil, gas and grains, favored by a favorable cost due to the sanctions imposed on Moscow.

Despite a desire to diversify its economic partnerships, Tunisia’s trade balance with Russia as with China remains largely in deficit, and exports remain mainly oriented towards EU countries, mainly traditional partners such as France and the ‘Italy.

“Russia does not have the means to offer economic partnerships like with Europe, but they know how to exploit the vacuum and put additional pressure on Europe which is in difficulty in Africa,” confirms Hamza Meddeb, who mentions a “strategic opportunism” rather than a real repositioning of Tunisia.

For Kamel Jendoubi, first president of the ISIE and former minister of human rights, the visit of the current president of the electoral body to Russia can also be interpreted as a way of “challenging Europeans and Western democracies, to assert that if we want a reference, we can look for it there.”

“Criminalization of the opposition”

Attached to a sovereignist discourse, Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed had already spoken out in 2022 against the presence of foreign observers in Tunisia who would come to “give lessons” in electoral matters. “We do not send correspondence to states like France and the United States to congratulate them on their transparent elections. We don’t need their authentication,” he said at the time.

Western countries are regularly accused in the Arab world of using double standards when it comes to human rights and democracy. They are notably criticized for not condemning with sufficient virulence the war waged by Israel in the Gaza Strip in response to the Hamas attack of October 7. A perception widely shared in Tunisia, and which, according to Mr. Meddeb, “gave grist to the mill of Kaïs Saïed and greatly strengthened the authoritarian regimes in the region”.

As the presidential vote scheduled for the fall approaches, there are growing concerns about the credibility of Tunisia’s elections. The electoral body, made up of members appointed by Kaïs Saïed following his coup in July 2021, is at the center of strong criticism, at the origin of several complaints targeting political opponents, including Abir Moussi, president of the Party Free Destourian or Jaouhar Ben Mbarek sentenced to six months in prison in February 2024 for criticism expressed during the 2022 legislative elections, even though he was already detained in connection with a case of conspiracy against state security .

For Kamel Jendoubi, “this criminalization of the opposition in all directions fulfills a double objective: to eliminate those who are considered traitors and to create a climate of fear aimed at neutralizing any dynamic. With an electoral body and an administration subject to executive power, it looks a lot like Russian elections.”