Democratic Transitions Elections North Africa
MENASource September 12, 2019

Factbox: Tunisia’s precarious 2019 presidential election

By Adam Aluzri and Christiana Haynes

Voting booths open for the Tunisian presidential election this Sunday, September 15, in one of the world’s youngest democracies. Tunisians will be selecting their second president from among twenty-six candidates, including two women, with hopes of a new vision for addressing pressing issues about the economy, security, and political reform. Parliamentary elections follow on October 6, setting the tone for Tunisian politics until 2024. Yet this election has not been without its share of unforeseen obstacles, including, most notably, the death of President Beji Caïd Essebsi on July 25.

The Tunisian presidential election was originally scheduled for November 17, after the parliamentary elections, but Essebsi’s death compelled the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) to reschedule it to September 15. This is because the constitution requires that a successor be chosen no later than ninety days after a sitting president’s death. With the already-brief electoral calendar cut even shorter, candidates, election officials, and the public have little time to prepare.

Following the Arab Spring in 2011, region wide expectations for Tunisia were high. Yet, despite measured improvements in Arabs’ perception of democracy, reports suggest growing disillusionment with democracy among Tunisians due to high unemployment rates and inflation, political gridlock, and the persistence of terrorist attacks. Politically, this has been reflected by decreasing voter turnout in municipal elections and the growth of populist rhetoric.

With so little time to campaign, candidates have focused more on distinguishing their personalities than on discussing policy in detail…

Each of these developments has analysts concerned that a strong-man politician may take power, potentially opening the path to autocratic policies like those implemented by ousted president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. With so little time to campaign, candidates have focused more on distinguishing their personalities than on discussing policy in detail, which may indicate a shift toward cult-of-personality politics. If such a candidate emerges victorious, it could have significant consequences for the shape of the country’s democratic institutions going forward.

Interactive timeline

Alternatively, the presidential election could serve as a significant opportunity for Ennahda, the predominantly Islamic party within Tunisia. After Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted in a military coup in 2013, Ennahda chose to wait for democracy within Tunisia to mature before nominating their own candidate. Now, after a clamorous internal debate, Ennahda’s party members have chosen to nominate one of their own for the 2019 election. Should Ennahda succeed, an Islamic party member would control the presidency for the first time in Tunisian history.

Pressure continues to mount on the nation of nearly 12 million, making the 2019 elections a landmark in Tunisia’s history.

Candidate profiles

Yousef Chahed, Tahya Tounes

  • Current Prime Minister
  • A former member of Nidaa Tounes after being expelled in 2018 with a fallout with Essebsi over government control, leading him to begin his own party
  • Has run a controversial campaign against corruption, promoted IMF economic reforms, and has pushed for efforts to secure the country after several terrorist attacks
  • Led early opinions polls but dropped off over time. Chahed has strong name recognition, but is considered to be an establishment candidate. He was banking on his party doing well in the parliamentary election, but with the reversal in the order of the elections, it has become more necessary for him to do well in the presidential election

Nabil Karoui, Qalb Tounes

  • Advertising and media mogul, owner of the private, government-critical TV station Nesma
  • Was a founding member of Nidaa Tounes, but later split with Chahed
  • After vocalizing anti-government sentiment, a law was passed on June 18 that would have prevented those engaged in “political advertising” from taking part in the country’s presidential elections. This law was widely perceived as targeting political outsiders, including Karoui. However, President Essebsi died before signing it, and Ennaceur chose not to sign it, causing the law to become void and allowing Karoui to continue his candidacy
  • Nevertheless, Karoui was arrested on August 23 on charges of tax evasion and money laundering. It is only illegal for someone to run for president while charged with a crime if the charge explicitly disallows it, and Karoui’s charges make no mention of a presidential run. However, if he is found guilty, he would be prohibited from becoming president. It is unclear how ISIE or the country’s judicial system would respond in this scenario
  • Led most recent polls

Abdelfattah Mourou, Ennahda

  • Currently acting as Interim Speaker of Parliament after Ennaceur became acting president
  • Was a founding member of Ennahda
  • Largely considered a moderate, he supports Muslim women’s ability to marry non-Muslims, though he has waffled on the question of women’s legal status in inheriting property
  • Considered to be a frontrunner, especially as secularist vote is split among other candidates

Abir Moussi, Free Destourian Party

  • Was a staunch supporter of Ben Ali, and represented many of his former party officials in court
  • Almost prevented from running by the June 18 law which would have outlawed political advertising, as it also bans candidates who engage in “apology of human rights violations
  • Supports a return to the old executive presidential system that existed under Ben Ali
  • Did well in early polling, though the secularist vote is split between her and Abdelkarim Zbidi, another former member of Ben Ali’s party

Kaïs Saïed, Independent Candidate

  • Constitutional law professor at the University of Tunis
  • A populist with especially conservative views, Saïed supports various reforms to the electoral system to counter corruption, yet he also wants to centralize power. He also supports the resurrection of the death penalty and claims that homosexuality is an illness and a foreign plot
  • Prior to the moratorium on polling, he was one of the few candidates that consistently achieved double-digit support

Abdelkarim Zbidi, Independent Candidate

  • Recently resigned as Minister of Defense, having served as a medical doctor and occupying various academic positions
  • He is distinctively a secularist, though he has also attempted to reach out to Islamists. Wants to centralize power. His platform focuses on enhancing counterterrorism efforts and pursuing reconciliation with members of the Ben Ali regime
  • Supported by parts of Nidaa Tounes and other smaller parties

N/A, Nidaa Tounes

  • The party of President Essebsi, now headed by his son Hafedh
  • Not officially backing any presidential candidates this election cycle, though parts have expressed support for Zbidi
  • Once composed of a coalition of secularists and Islamists, the party has since fragmented as over half of the party has defected since 2014
  • Many of its former members have joined Tahya Tounes and now support Chahed

Other notable candidates who have polled in low- or mid-single digits:

  • Mohamed Abbou, human rights lawyer and activist
  • Hamma Hammami, leftist activist
  • Hamadi Jebali, former prime minister with Ennahda
  • Mehdi Jomaa, former minister of industry
  • Mohsen Marzouk, founder of Machrou’ Tounes party
  • Moncef Marzouki, former president and human rights activist

Pulse of the election — presidential debates

With the presidential debates recently concluded, all candidates—with the notable exception of Nabil Karoui—have had an opportunity to share their agendas on stage.

Days before the first round of Tunisia’s presidential election, the fledgling democracy presented the first of three nights of televised debates between the candidates on Saturday, a rarity in the Arab world.

Karoui took to Twitter to share his frustration with being excluded:

Nevertheless, the debates were well received as an expression of democratic freedom by Arabs throughout the region.

Viewership was as high as three million within Tunisia, with even more uncounted viewers in neighboring Arab countries. This could set a precedent for the region, both through the highly touted debate process and the potentially higher voting turnout that may result.

Adam Aluzri and Christiana Haynes are interns with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs.

Image: People watch a televised debate between presidential candidates at a cafe in central Tunis, Tunisia, September 7, 2019. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi