A Thousand Unknowns of the Tunisian Vote
Federica Zoja 13 September 2019

On Sunday September 15 about 7 million Tunisians will choose the new occupant of the Carthage Palace. The vote was anticipated due to the death of President Béji Caïd Essebsi, on July 25. The high number of candidates, 26, and the extreme fragmentation of the political spectrum make it more difficult than ever to hazard a prediction, although some of the candidates aspiring to the presidency enjoy high popularity.


The political battle

Thus, politicos continue to consider the media tycoon Nabil Karoui, 56 — founder of Nessma TV — as the “horse” with the highest chances of cutting the finish line first in the initial round (a possible runoff will be held two weeks later). Yet Karoui has been under detention in Mornaguia prison on charges of money laundering and tax fraud since August 25. The legal team that defends the billionaire — often cited by the Arab media as the Tunisian Berlusconi — has called out the political conspiracy, blaming the government for eliminating Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s most obvious competitor. Chahed is also vying to succeed President Essebsi and take the top job in the land.

In order to conduct a wide-ranging electoral campaign, touring the whole country province after province, Chahed, 45, temporarily ceded his powers to the minister for public administration, Kamel Morjane. No resignations, just a check, as required by the constitution during the electoral campaign period. In addition, the prime minister also renounced his dual citizenship (French) to make his candidacy unassailable. This was a gesture of profound political value in bringing the élite, contested by the population, somehow closer to ordinary people.

Karoui and Chahed belong to the same political family — the modernist, liberal, progressive and secular front that gave rise, in 2012, to Nidaa Tounès (The Call of Tunisia), in the shadow of Essebsi. Karoui participated enthusiastically in that venture, though not as a candidate. After the revolution, his private broadcaster — a share of which is controlled by the Italian tycoon Silvio Berlusconi — has gained international popularity because it was targeted by Islamic extremists for having transmitted “Persepolis”, an animated film taken from a book written by the Iranian dissident Marjane Satrapi.

The decision to run emerged in May of this year, but Karoui’s critics claim that the move had been planned for at least two years — that is, after the businessman embarked on a very public charity campaign, not unlike that of Bill and Melinda Gates in the United States, in the spotlight of the Arab media. With his new party, Heart of Tunisia (Qalb Tounès), which is built around the personality of the leader rather than around a political agenda, today Nabil Karoui represents and gathers the country’s anti-system demands. “I’m not a populist; rather, I love being popular” says Karoui somewhat defensively, well aware he is in pole position.

Chahed, on the other hand, is the spearhead of Tahya Tounès (Long live Tunisia), the party born at the beginning of 2019 from the ashes of the dying Nidaa, to which prominent figures of the left and the republican opposition have been joining to this day. Among eligible candidates are also the constitutionalist Kaïs Saïed, renamed the Tunisian Robespierre, as a fierce enemy of the “caste”. Abir Moussi of the Free Dusturian Party (dustur means constitution in Arabic), a young admirer of the former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, has also been accredited. Mohamed Abbou, the current (interim) president, Defense Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi (supported by the liberals of Nidaa) and Mehdi Jomaa, a former premier, may also place well. Abdelfattah Mourou runs under the banner of the moderate Islamists of Ennahda (The Renaissance), currently in the majority in Parliament thanks to the debacle of Nidaa’s allies.


What’s at stake for Tunisia?

In this electoral campaign, religious themes have found no space. For all the candidates, the priority has always been the economic question, focusing squarely on issues of employment, growth, development, and so on. For Ennahda, the political arm of the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood, normalization is essential to survive. This is why Mourou seeks to be accredited as “the president of all” and why he adopts a moderate and conciliatory language. Outside Ennahda, from which it was released in 2014, it is interesting the candidacy of former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who reiterates: “I am not Ennahda’s hidden candidate”.

The “Tunisian Muslim democrats” — a descriptor borrowed from the European “Christian democrat” tradition (i.e. the German and Italian Christian Democrats) — still enjoy a good response in the country, which emerged in the municipal elections a year ago, but suffer the negative impact of the investigations of the Prosecutor’s Office of Tunis. Party leaders are accused of coordinating, through the secret police who work under their command, the recruitment of foreign fighters for Middle Eastern theaters of war. Moreover, even the political killings of 2013 in Tunisia (i.e. of Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi) were attributed to the highest party leaders.

Neither of the two winning political forces in 2014 — namely, the liberals of Nidaa and the Islamists of Ennahda — is therefore in full health. On the one hand, the government of the liberal-Islamist national consensus has succeeded in the aim of saving Tunisia from a civil war, isolating the more radical fringes of Islam and asserting civilian control over the armed forces. On the other hand, however, the rehabilitation of figures compromised by their connection to the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has taken authority away from the “new” apparatus, always in the odor of restoration. Moreover, the competition and then the final break between the son of President Essebsi, Hafedh, and Youssef Chahed led to the death of Nidaa, which lost dozen of parliamentarians.

Furthermore, for the Tunisian population, the socio-economic context has never really improved, despite progressive austerity measures. Corruption and cronyism have remained, and armed Islamism has raised its head, made only more aggressive by the return home of hundreds of jihadists from Middle Eastern fronts. General discontent could, therefore, benefit emerging populists.

Among the various political players, it is worth keeping an eye on “Aish Tounis“, a movement halfway between an NGO and a party, able to organize two popular consultations online, in November 2018 and March 2019, mobilizing over 400,000 Tunisians. The result was a 12-point policy document, signed by more than one million people and potentially able to place them in the top three in October parliamentary elections.

Finally, there are some useful numbers to frame the context. Compared to previous consultations, one and a half million citizens more have registered to vote. Of those entitled (around 9 million), another million and a half decided not to register. These figures could indicate the determination of Tunisians to continue to participate in the democratic process. However, abstention remains a crucial unknown factor, given results in past municipal elections. In 2018, only 36% of those registered voted for the renewal of local administration.


Photo: Ettounsiya TV channel / AFP

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