Arrest of candidate unsettles first lap of Tunisia’s presidential race

Tunisia’s elections are building up as an initial no-holds barred-competition between contenders in the secularist centrist camp.
Saturday 24/08/2019
Nabil Karoui submits his candidacy document to Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections in Tunis, August 2. (AFP)
Unexpected turn of events. Nabil Karoui submits his candidacy document to Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections in Tunis, August 2. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s presidential field is shaping up as the most diverse in terms of personalities, featuring candidates who are widely known and others trying to enhance their profiles.

The arrest August 23 of Nabil Karoui, a media magnate and one of the prime candidates, on charges of money laundering and tax evasion, threw the election into unexpected turmoil.

A judge decided in July to bar both Karoui and his brother Ghazi Karoui from international travel after an investigation into alleged money laundering and tax evasion. The case was initiated by local transparency civic association “I Watch.”

It is not clear how Karoui’s arrest will affect Tunisia’s election campaign.

There are 26 confirmed candidates and four others trying to get back into the race after winning a court appeal against their exclusion by Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections.

The presidential elections September 15 are centred on big ideas, while detailed proposals on bread-and-butter topics are left for parliamentary elections, which will follow October 6.

Some candidates have been more aggressive in suggesting specific reforms with others promising details at the formal beginning of the campaign September 2. All are vying to differentiate themselves in the crowded field.

The elections are building up as a no-holds barred-competition between contenders in the secularist centrist camp and later as a tussle between Islamists and the leftist and secularist camp.

Former Defence Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi and Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed have been the two most visible contenders in the modernist camp.

Chahed, rushing to state television August 22 to make a speech to the country 30 minutes before a scheduled television appearance by Zbidi, said: “To ensure the transparency of the presidential election and the equal opportunities between all candidates,” he was temporarily delegating his prime ministerial duties to Minister of Public Service Kamel Morjane.

Morjane is a leader in Chahed’s Tahya Tounes party.

Zbidi, 69, announced his resignation as defence minister before he submitted his candidacy August 8. He stressed his “independence” from party politics and business interests. Opinion polls indicated that Tunisians do not trust political parties and view politicians through the prism of personality.

Zbidi was the first candidate to make public policy specifics that positioned him as the main rival of the Islamists as he outlined a desire for a change of the regime favoured by the Islamist Ennahda Movement to shore up its dominance of the government even when it is a minority in the society.

Despite its decline in public support, Ennahda has seven ministers in the government versus two in previous cabinets.

Zbidi said he sees it as a priority to investigate the possible link between a suspected “secret organisation” and the assassinations of two secularist opposition figures in 2013. Leftist activists have accused Ennahda’s Islamists of ties to the alleged secret organisation. Ennahda has denied it.

Zbidi’s position puts him in stark contrast to Chahed, who has been criticised for his silence about the “secret organisation” and its possible role in the assassinations.

Zbidi sounded bitter about a smear campaign against him on social media, which he blamed on state-affiliated institutions, a thinly veiled accusation against the government.

Chahed, at 43 the youngest prime minister in Tunisia’s history, sought to display his freshness as he complained in public about obstacles he faced as prime minister from “elderly rivals.”

The two candidates will be tackled in their own camp by at least eight other contenders, including Karoui, 56, a populist television magnate now under arrest.

Other challengers to Chahed and Zbidi include anti-Islamist politician Abir Moussi, 44, who heads the Free Destourian Party. She competes on the same grounds as secularist Mohsen Marzouk, 54, a former adviser to former Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and chairman of Machrou Tounes, and former Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, 57.

If one of the modernist candidates makes it to the run-off against an Islamist or Islamist-backed candidate, he or she could receive support from the leftist camp, which suffers its divisions between Hamma Hammami, 67, who is locked in a fight with parliament member Mongi Rahoui, 55, for that bloc’s support.

The front-runner of the Islamist-and-other conservatives’ camp is parliament Deputy Speaker Abdelfattah Mourou, 71. Mourou, a highly placed officer in Ennahda, will fight rivals in his own camp, including former President Moncef Marzouki, 74, who appeals to Islamist voters with his support to the Muslim Brotherhood in the region and their state backers Turkey and Qatar.

Former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, 70, who was one of Ennahda’s chiefs before he departed the party after secularist protesters forced him to step down as prime minister in 2013, competes for Islamist ballots as well.

Among populist independent candidates, university law teacher Kais Said, 61, is a conservative-leaning candidate who aims to challenge known politicians with experience in government to emphasise his potential as an independent with bold promises. He said he believes he can pull off an upset and stun the political class he often derides.

Karoui’s detention is bound to be one of the issues in election debates. His candidacy has been controversial since he surged into a leading position in opinion polls. A major issue was the boost he received from Nessma TV, a private channel managed by him and his brother. He was accused by critics of using Nessma to showcase his charitable activities to enhance his popularity, especially among the poor.

The channel was also accused by regulators of “positioning itself to influence government bodies” and rebuked for failing to make public its list of shareholders.

It is not certain if Karoui’s candidacy can survive his troubles with the judiciary, but unless he receives a sentence specifically banning him from running, he would still be a candidate. Supporters are using the arrest to depict him as a victim of the ruling system.

“Karoui is a pure product of political marketing and populism despite the foul language and thug practices he uses,” said former Secretary of State for American and Asian Affairs Hedi Ben Abbes. “We have striven to produce evidence to the contrary but to no avail. The power of the television screen prevails always.”