Dynamics old and new drive Tunisia’s election cycle

If the presidential campaign is any indication, a new political culture has emerged in Tunisia, considered a model of successful democratic transition in the region.
Saturday 14/09/2019
A man poses for a picture with a poster that reads in Arabic “Tunis, Elect and Continue” during the opening of the media center for the Tunisian presidential election in Tunis, September 12. (Reuters)
A man poses for a picture with a poster that reads in Arabic “Tunis, Elect and Continue” during the opening of the media center for the Tunisian presidential election in Tunis, September 12. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Since early September, Tunisia has been going through an election cycle that will continue until the beginning of November.

After the results of the September 15 presidential election are announced, Tunisian voters will have to choose, on October 6, which political parties and independent slates will sit in the new parliament and form the next government.

If the presidential campaign is any indication, a new political culture has emerged in Tunisia, considered a model of successful democratic transition in the region.

Whatever the electoral results, liberal Westernised elites and, to a certain extent, Islamist candidates have been strongly challenged by populists.

Said Aidi, Bani Watani leader and presidential candidate, told The Arab Weekly the trend stems from a combination of crises besetting the country since the 2011 uprising, despite the new era of democratic change. “There is a crisis of confidence in Tunisian politics, as well as a social and economic crisis,” he said.

The solutions some populists offer reflect distrust of political elites and a lack of confidence in the overall post-independence management of Tunisia’s resources, which the West has been accused of unfairly exploiting.

“Populists use this argument of natural resources to lure voters by selling them pipe dreams using data and figures that are inaccurate,” said Aidi.

If the 2014 election was marked by a clear-cut polarisation between secularists and Islamists, that divide is not totally absent in the current election cycle despite the growing divisiveness among the modernists themselves.

Tunisian Minister of Defence Abdelkrim Zbidi, a presidential candidate running as an independent, acknowledged that the Islamist Ennahda Movement “is objectively an integral part of the political and party landscape in Tunisia.”

However, during his campaign, Zbidi also highlighted a different vision that separated him from Islamists. Echoing demands by secularists and leftists who clamour for light to be shed on the suspicions of an Islamist-run clandestine operation that would have been involved in assassinations and illegal spying since 2013, Zbidi pledged, if elected, “to unravel the mysteries linked to the issue of the secret apparatus.”

Experts said oversized egos, internecine feuds and lack of cohesive narratives loom large among modernists. This has bred a “poisonous climate,” they said, made worse by glitches in the unfinished institution-building process.

The absence of a Constitutional Court, because of the inability of parliament to agree on its makeup, has created political turbulence and tense jockeying for power. Almost all candidates have called for amendments to the electoral code. Many advocated for revising the constitution to reset the balance of power between institutions.

Others said they regret there is no provision for primary elections within the secular camp but former Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, another of the 26 confirmed candidates for president, told The Arab Weekly that kind of provision was premature.

“The question of the primaries is not yet relevant because we must first finalise the constitutional bodies of the second republic as we will have amended the electoral code to allow for a stable majority in the assembly,” he said.

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