Middle East North Africa
MENASource September 5, 2019

Is the early presidential election a political turning point for Tunisia?

By Haykel Ben Mahfoudh

Every July 25, the country used to celebrate the proclamation of the Republic in 1957. This year on July 25 it was instead a sad day for all Tunisians: Tunisian President Beji Caïd Essebssi, the first ever democratically elected president in Tunisia’s modern history, died before the end of his constitutional term.

In accordance with the Tunisian Constitution, the Speaker of the Parliament immediately undertook the tasks of the President of the Republic for a period of no less than forty-five days and no more than ninety days. M. Mohamed Ennaceur took an oath before the Assembly’s Bureau the same day and became the interim President of the Republic. In less than six hours, the transition was done in a very smooth, but also legal way.

The Higher Independent Authority for the Elections (ISIE) quickly took the decision to comply with the constitutional deadlines. Therefore, the first round of the early presidential elections will now take place on September 15 2019 rather than November 17 as originally planned Flynns footnote. This decision by the ISIE was decided despite calls emanating from political parties to agree on a new date even though this would stretch the constitutional interim period limit. The change in the sequence of elections may be perceived negatively by most candidates who were more prepared for legislative elections first; which remain on October 6.

Presidential candidates rushed to the ISIE headquarters soon after these announcements. At the closing date of the candidacies, the ISIE declared receiving ninety-seven candidates, including twelve women and seventy-three independents. Most of them were just for show. The ISIE has officially validated the candidacy of twenty-six people. Only two women are still in the competition.

Among the twenty-six candidates, two are the subjects of criminal proceedings. Slim Riahi, a self-exiled businessman and Nabil Karoui, a popular TV channel owner. While the former submitted his candidacy from abroad to avoid an arrest warrant in Tunisia, the second was arrested last week in the midst of a polemic over the execution of an arrest warrant; after being charged with money laundering and tax evasion in early July. He has to continue his campaign for the presidential election from his cell.

There are other serious allegations concerning other candidates accused of falsifying signatures and endorsements required to become a candidate. Judicial authorities are currently investigating these alleged cases. Despite this tense climate, the suspected candidates reaffirmed their intention to stand in the polls and maintain their candidacy.

The current Prime Minister Youssef Chahed who is leading the new secular political party Tahya Tounes and his minister of defense M. Abdelkrim Zbidi who is supported by secular parties including Nidaa Tounes (Essebssi’s party) will compete against each other for the next election. To ensure a fair campaign and in order to avoid accusations of using the state’s means in their campaign, Prime Minister Chahed decided to delegate—on dubious constitutional basis—his authority to one of his ministers until September 13; whereas M. Zbidi declared on the same day of his candidacy that he resigned from his post of Minister of Defense however, he is still in charge of the department. Among noteworthy candidates, there are the former president of the republic Marzouki, two former prime ministers (Mehdi Jomaa and Hamadi Jebali) and few ex-ministers. Simultaneously, prominent members of the current government are running in the legislative elections too.

In the turmoil, the Ennhadha Muslim party came to designate its Vice President Abdelfatteh Mourou—a lawyer who is acting currently as the interim Speaker of the Parliament—to be their presidential candidate. The Islamic party first’s intention was to look for a candidate from outside the party, but options were limited and last minute negotiations with Prime Minister Youssef Chahed were also unsuccessful. The party’s leadership attempt to position itself prominently in the elections provoked dissent among its Shura Council.

Once again, the secularist and social-democratic parties remained fragmented and did not reach a consensus on an agreed upon candidate. This will consume energy and space on the ballot papers for so many pretenders to the presidency. Appeals from civil society and intellectual elite to democratic candidates in the presidential elections for their withdrawal “for the benefit of the best-placed federating candidate” remain unheard.

As for the second line of candidates, is composed to a large extent of popular democrat challengers to the old system. This apparent pluralism is anomalous as it is equated with the absence of leadership in the political landscape; the lack of clear-cut policies among political groups and the weakness of representative institutions. It does not imply commitment to fully respect the values of democracy without any attempt to impose political and economic hegemony. To protect democracy from erosion there needs to be integrated diversity rather than pluralism.

Essebssi’s sudden death clearly disturbed the parties’ calculations and plans. The new compressed electoral calendar leaves the candidates with very little time and space to develop their program and even their communication strategy. Having said that, some of them were rapidly able to concoct an electoral narrative trying to convey to a very hesitant electorate that they might change their lives. But then, how do voters will go about comparing and then judging all these candidates? It is difficult to move beyond the candidates’ image to the substance of the campaign.

Actually, the choice of the voters is going to be influenced by two more opposing elements: the willingness to claim the legacy of president’s Essebssi presidency on specific issues, including women rights versus the ability to challenge citizens’ fears and expectations.

But there are two more consistent takeaways in this: none of the serious contenders are ready to change the voting patterns unless they look towards their constituents among the people instead of making pre-campaign pilgrimages for the support of the media and the unions. The results of the next presidential election may change the political spectrum for the subsequent legislative elections too. During the last eights years, the political paranoia has been the rule, leading public opinion to discredit politicians and political parties. There are reasons to believe that the next presidential election will bring a new generation of voters, especially among youth, who is impatient with corruption and inefficient politics.

Haykel Ben Mahfoudh is a senior non-resident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

Image: Supporters of presidential candidate Nabil Karoui, hold his pictures as they take part in a rally asking for his release from prison, in front of the courthouse in Tunis, Tunisia, September 3, 2019. The placard reads "Release Nabil". REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi