Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 October 2019

Polls open in Tunisia's crowded presidential election

Twenty-four candidates are on the ballot paper, increasing the likelihood of a run-off

Workers of Tunisia's Independent High Election Authority deliver ballot boxes to a polling station ahead of the presidential election. EPA
Workers of Tunisia's Independent High Election Authority deliver ballot boxes to a polling station ahead of the presidential election. EPA

Tunisia goes to the polls today with little certain other than that the race for President is sure to be tight.

In the build up to the vote, rumours from private polling provided little certainty of how the country’s seven million registered voters may swing. However, initial signals held that jailed media magnate Nabil Karoui had maintained the fragile lead he had established in July before published polls became illegal.

The first-round vote is only the second democratic presidential election that Tunisia has seen since its “jasmine revolution” brought down autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, triggering uprisings across the region.

The election has been brought forward due to the death of the country’s first democratically elected leader, Beji Caid Essebsi in July.

Two of the original 26 candidates have so far pulled out. Maverick outsider, Slim Riahi, who ran his campaign from self-imposed exile and Machrouu Tounes leader Mohsen Marzouk, both withdrew in favour of Defence Minister Dr Abdelkarim Zbidi.

Of the remaining candidates, Law Professor Kais Saied, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, moderate Islamists, Ennahda’s Abdelfattah Mourou and Dr Zbidi all look set to present Mr Karoui with his most serious challenge and a small but significant proportion of voters seem likely to favour former President Moncef Marzouki’s progressive platform.

The plethora of candidates has increased the likelihood that no one person will win a majority of the vote, leading to a runoff election.

Irrespective of his legal difficulties, Mr Karoui’s insurgent anti-establishment campaign has captured the mood of much of Tunisia.

"I will probably vote for Nabil Karoui,” 56-year-old streetside kaki (bread stick) seller Salem Hwedji said. Referring to what Mr Karoui has described as a deprived upbringing in the northern port city of Bizerte, he continued, “he's the only one who cares about the poor. He's also been through some very difficult times himself.

"He's in prison because the other candidates want to prevent him from becoming President. It's a plot," he said.

Beyond the relative affluence of Tunisia’s capital and coastal cities, entrenched poverty and joblessness have become a fact of life for many.

Further to unemployment figures, which can reach as high as 30 per cent in some of the more marginalised towns, are the scores of citizens who flee the North African country in droves each summer. Their search for a better life may relieve some of the stress on the over-stretched economy, but creates international challenges.

Internal discontent has translated into voter apathy. Despite a turnout for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014 of 63 per cent and 68 per cent respectively, by the time of last year’s municipal election, that figure had shrunk to just 34 per cent, way below what many had hoped for from the country's first significant devolution of power to the regions.

It is this discontent that Mr Karoui’s campaign has tapped directly into. Broadcasts that feature him distributing aid to the desperate, while railing against the iniquities of an indifferent political class – and principally the Prime Minister – have struck a chord that is now paying an electoral dividend.

Moreover, his repeated legal confrontations with the establishment, which saw his final appeal for release declined on Friday, have only cemented his reputation as the world’s latest millionaire to position themselves as a champion of the poor.

However, his populist surge is not without its challengers.

For observers of Tunisian politics, Kais Saied’s broad support remains an enigma. Speaking in formal Arabic and apparently uncomfortable in his own skin, ‘The Robot,’ as he has been popularly christened, nevertheless established a commanding position in the polls, despite the absence of any party machine.

Like his anti-establishment rival, Mr Saied’s programme capitalises on the popular discontent towards the ruling classes, while offering a more dispassionate and scientific remedy.

Facing the populist insurgency of Mr Karoui and Mr Saied are the more establishment figures of Mr Zbidi, Mr Mourou and Mr Chahed, who are in competition for the country’s more moderate vote. All have been keen to stress the economic case for their candidacy, with even Mr Mourou seemingly downplaying his religious credentials in favour of discussion of economic recovery.

However, given the similarity of much of their arguments, distinctions between the secular candidates have become blurred, with only Mr Mourou distinguishing himself through the religious shading of his platform.

“The most divided camp in these elections is that of the secular establishment,” Sharan Grewal, a visiting fellow at the Centre for Middle East Policy at Brookings told The National.

“This camp can be described as “Bourguibists”, as they are trying to claim the mantle of Tunisia’s first president and further the country’s progressive (ie secular) tradition. They are originally Nidaa Tounes supporters who are looking for someone to replace the late President Essebsi.”

What alliances existed under the deceased President, however, were contentious, with bitter internal rivalries often dividing the party. “Unless they can agree on one candidate, it is unlikely that any of them will be able to top Ennahda’s Abdelfattah Mourou or Qalb Tounes’ (Heart of Tunisia) Nabil Karoui and make it to the second round,” Mr Grewal said.

However, while the secular camp may be fractious, the solid bedrock of Ennahda’s religiously-motivated voters cannot be assumed.

“Mourou’s command of the conservative/Islamist camp has been challenged by ex-Ennahda leader Hamadi Jebali,” Mr Grewal continued, “the socially conservative Kais Saied, and the independent Islamist Mohamed Hechmi Hamdi. However, Mourou is the only one within this camp that can count on a reliable organisation to mobilise voters to the polls and therefore has the advantage here.”

Updated: September 15, 2019 08:28 AM

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