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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Major political shift to come as Tunisia votes for new president

A victory for Mr Marzouki could herald an uneasy working relationship between a president who firmly rejects the legacy of Tunisia’s pre-revolutionary regimes, and a government and parliament dominated by a new party that nevertheless has links to the country’s authoritarian past. Mr Marzouki’s challenger Beji Caid Sebsi, who was a prominent politician in the first decades of Tunisian independence, was front-runner in last month’s first round. A victory for Mr Caid Sebsi would mean that his Nidaa Tounes party would control the presidency, in addition to appointing the new government and being the largest party in parliament.
Employees from the Independent High Authority for elections (ISIE) offload ballot boxes from a military vehicle under the surveillance of the Tunisian army, which are to be distributed to polling centres in the governorate of Ben Arous on December 20, 2014. Fethi Belaid/AFP Photo
Employees from the Independent High Authority for elections (ISIE) offload ballot boxes from a military vehicle under the surveillance of the Tunisian army, which are to be distributed to polling centres in the governorate of Ben Arous on December 20, 2014. Fethi Belaid/AFP Photo

TUNIS // The final round of Tunisia’s presidential election on Sunday looks set to confirm a major shift in the country’s post-revolutionary politics, as the incumbent president, former human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, faces a strong challenge from a veteran politician whose new party has emerged as a major political player.

A victory for Mr Marzouki could herald an uneasy working relationship between a president who firmly rejects the legacy of Tunisia’s pre-revolutionary regimes, and a government and parliament dominated by a new party that nevertheless has links to the country’s authoritarian past.

Mr Marzouki’s challenger Beji Caid Sebsi, who was a prominent politician in the first decades of Tunisian independence, was front-runner in last month’s first round. A victory for Mr Caid Sebsi would mean that his Nidaa Tounes party would control the presidency, in addition to appointing the new government and being the largest party in parliament. Grouping old-regime figures with other new faces, Nidaa Tounes has presented itself as the natural home for anti-Islamist modernists.

Mr Caid Sebsi’s party won 86 of the 217 seats in the new parliament elected in October, giving it the right to name a prime minister. However, it failed to win an overall majority and will have to form a coalition government.

The Ennahda party, which had been the largest bloc in the interim legislature, on a platform of moderate Islamism, saw its presence slip to 69 seats.

While Ennahda is officially neutral on the outcome of the presidential election, the party’s supporters supply the largest bloc of votes for Mr Marzouki, a former dissident who represents the small, non-religious and centre-left Congress for the Revolution party (CPR).

However the Ennahda party leadership has indicated it could favour the party joining a broad coalition government led by Nidaa Tounes.

Ennahda’s decision not to officially endorse Marzouki’s candidacy prompted the resignation from the party of its former secretary-general, Hamadi Jebali, who served as prime minister in 2012-13.

If Mr Caid Sebsi becomes president “we will have fallen into the trap of leaving one sole party in a position of dominance,” Mr Jebali told The National in an interview this week. “To build democracy, you absolutely have to have a balance of forces: a power and a counterweight. Now we are left with a single party in a hegemonic position.”

Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi this week distanced himself from Marzouki’s electoral platform by dismissing fears of a return to authoritarianism. “The police state, the single-party state is not about to return,” Mr Ghannouchi said. “The days of president for life are over.”

Observers note that the possibility of an entente between the Islamists and a Nidaa Tounes government therefore remains open.

In October, Ennahda was unexpectedly unseated by Nidaa Tounes as the largest bloc in the country’s new parliament, which replaces the constituent assembly elected in 2011.

The Islamist party was targeted by waves of repression under the rule of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Opponents of Mr Caid Sebsi have meanwhile not forgotten his time as interior minister under the 30-year-rule of president Habib Bourguiba, the country’s first post-independence president. It was a period of harsh repression of leftist critics, including through the use of torture and imprisonment without fair trial.

Mr Caid Sebsi was also parliamentary speaker in the early years of the Ben Ali regime.

Nidaa Tounes, which he formed more than a year after the 2011 revolution, draws some electoral support from voters who feel loyalty to Ben Ali’s now dissolved ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD).

Attempting to distance itself from that repressive past, Nidaa Tounes has offered voters a line-up of other smaller parties backing Mr Caid Sebsi’s bid for the presidency.

Sunday’s vote will show just how many Tunisian voters have been won over to the idea that the gains of the 2011 revolution are safe in old hands.

Mr Marzouki argues that only he can be trusted to defend the new freedoms that Tunisians won in their 2011 revolution against the Ben Ali regime. For decades after independence from France in 1956, Tunisia veered into authoritarianism, the 69-year-old told a campaign rally. It missed the opportunity to create a pluralist political system and a “nation of citizens” fully aware of their rights, he said.

Mr Markouzi argues that a vote for Mr Caid Sebsi would allow “old regime” elements to make a comeback.

For his part, Mr Caid Sebsi is wooing voters with the vision of a country that moves forward by rehabilitating the political culture of the past. The 88-year-old has pledged to honour not just the text, but also the new democratic spirit of the constitution approved in January.

His campaign has been given sympathetic coverage in much of Tunisia’s media, notably on the privately owned Nessma television channel, whose owner Nabil Karoui openly endorses Mr Caid Sebsi’s candidacy and has accompanied him on campaign events.

At Mr Marzouki’s campaign-closing event in a sports hall in the Bardo neighbourhood of Tunis on Friday, some of his supporters drawn from nearby lower-income neighbourhoods were doubtful about Mr Caid Sebsi’s pledges. They alleged that activists for his Nidaa Tounes party had attempted this autumn to revive the neighbourhood networks of influence that had been used to secure loyalty by the RCD party of Ben Ali.

A video circulating on social networking sites this week showed a young woman being urged by neighbourhood RCD loyalists to “vote for Beji”.

On the capital’s main avenue, meanwhile, Mr Caid Sebsi addressed a crowd in which professionals and civil servants were well represented. He referred to the two political assassinations carried out by radical Islamists in 2013, under a coalition government that was headed by Ennahda and included Mr Marzouki’s CPR.

Mr Caid Sebsi’s campaign has depicted the Islamist-led government that was in office through 2012 and 2013 as a glaring example of administrative incompetence, which gave free rein to extreme religious conservatives in the country’s mosques and paved the way for the emergence of armed extremism.

Under the country’s new constitution, the new president elected on Sunday is intended to have a more limited role. He will be responsible for the broad outline of security, defence and foreign policy.