New Survey Research on Tunisia and the IMF Deal
Tunisian Public More Open to the IMF than Its Leaders
Tunisia’s dictator, President Kais Saied, is pushing the country towards full-scale economic collapse by refusing to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund about a potential rescue deal. Neither the government nor the increasingly repressed opposition wants to take responsibility for the wrenching changes proposed by the IMF despite the offered loan package of $1.9 billion, such as privatization of state-owned enterprises and reducing public sector salaries. To gain insight into how ordinary Tunisians see this difficult situation, we implemented a national poll in July and August of 880 people using secure online recruitment tools. What we found is that the opinions of rank and file Tunisians are more diverse than their uncooperative leaders, but misunderstandings about the deal abound.
Tunisia is already in effective default as it has failed to pay suppliers of state-subsidized goods, including staples like sugar, flour and olive oil. Salaries to government employees have been delayed repeatedly. International default is looming with big loan repayments by the end of the year. For these reasons, an IMF deal that could avert an economic crisis is not an abstract outcome but rather a solution for a problem that all Tunisians face on a daily basis. Although President Saied’s ministers have negotiated with the IMF and advocated for the deal, he has argued against it in public because it would undermine the country’s sovereignty. As the country’s most popular political leader–albeit perhaps not quite as popular as he was a few years ago–his obstinacy is likely to undermine any negotiated compromise. Since he rejected an IMF deal last October, no further negotiations with the IMF have yet to produce any concrete results.
Our online poll captures Tunisians’ mixed sentiments towards the IMF. On average, Tunisians give the IMF deal an approval rating of about 43 using a feeling thermometer scale of 1 to 100, indicating opposition but of a moderate kind. In addition, a significant number of Tunisians approve of the IMF deal very strongly. Approximately one in 10 Tunisians rates the deal at 80 or higher out of 100. Moreover, when we asked Tunisians in the poll to explain their support or opposition, we received a range of answers. Some of the rationales matched common refrains in the media, such as fears that the deal would increase poverty and others echoing President Saied’s concerns over the country relinquishing its sovereignty. A not insignificant number, though, expressed beliefs that the deal would be a needed support for the country’s dismal finances and could even improve the political situation.
These very mixed feelings could be driven by a lack of quality knowledge about the IMF deal despite its prominence in the media. Only 22 percent of Tunisians report that they understand the negotiations very well, even though 62 percent of the population reports that they hear about the deal at least once a week. When we asked Tunisians to choose the correct elements of the proposed deal from a list of options, they do select some of the core planks, such as privatization of state-owned enterprises and trimming public sector salaries. However, they also select policies that are not a part of the negotiations, especially reducing migration to European countries. While the IMF does not have any preferences about Tunisian immigration policies, the connection between Tunisia’s fiscal collapse and the European officials’ posturing about the “dangers” of immigration have connected the two issues in the minds of many Tunisians.
Another hindrance to apprehending the IMF negotiations, of course, is that Tunisian politicians in both the government and the opposition are competing to oppose the deal rather than trying to prepare the population for what may have to happen in the future. We examined how prone people are to partisanship by exposing a subset of respondents to messages from popular politicians, including President Saied and the labor union UGTT, that expressed opposition to the deal. The message, which said that the deal could “compromise Tunisia’s economic and political stability”, statistically increased concerns over violations of Tunisia’s sovereignty by the IMF, though the effect was noticeably concentrated among President Saied supporters. For these partisans, we only needed to remind them of President Saied’s opposition to reduce their support for the deal.
Furthermore, even though President Saied’s high-minded rhetoric has yet to yield progress on the economic front, Tunisians do not appear to hold him responsible. When we asked which political and social actors Tunisians believe are most responsible for the “Tunisian government’s high government debts”, the largest number (over 30 percent) chose the Islamist party Ennahda, even though this group has been out of office since Saied’s coup in the summer of 2021. Tunisian respondents were also more likely to blame the powerful labor union UGTT that represents public sector workers than Saied. Although the president is certainly facing pressure for lack of success in easing the economic crisis, many Tunisians still do not see him as the primary reason for their economic problems–at least when compared to other players.
At the same time, our polling points to some ways that the IMF and other supporters of the deal could improve its messaging to Tunisians. First, younger Tunisians are much less likely to report hearing about the deal or understanding it. Only 20 percent of Tunisians in their twenties report hearing about the IMF deal on a daily basis compared with more than 50 percent of Tunisians in their sixties. Similarly, roughly twice as many men than women report hearing about the deal on a daily basis. Strategically focusing messaging on younger Tunisians and women could help reduce some of the misunderstanding and lack of clarity about what the deal entails. Furthermore, the IMF would do well by clarifying that immigration levels are not a precondition for Tunisia to sign a deal.
Ultimately, the fate of the deal lies in the hands of Tunisia’s political leaders, but popular pressure could help move the needle on the government’s tepid progress in negotiations. After all, the more complex reactions from Tunisians offer more opportunities for building popular support than the strong disapproval offered by the country’s fractured leadership.