The election of all doubts

If candidates with true ability to “save Tunisia” underestimate the appeal of the populists, they could be in for a September surprise.
Saturday 31/08/2019
Seeking the popular vote. Tunisians cast their votes at a polling station in local elections in Kasserine, Tunisia, in May 2018.  (AFP)
Seeking the popular vote. Tunisians cast their votes at a polling station in local elections in Kasserine, Tunisia, in May 2018. (AFP)

In mid-September, Tunisian voters will head to the polls to decide who will be their next president.

The polarisation of the 2014 elections and the charismatic presence of Beji Caid Essebsi have given way to a splintered landscape with no obvious front-runner who could win the majority of votes in the first round.

Qualifying for the second round might, in fact, depend on a fraction of a percentile.

There is no figure among the 26 final candidates who rises above the fray. There are no historic leaders and no charismatic personalities, although many feel they have the mettle to “save Tunisia.”

Many, including some who served in recent years in senior government positions, are distancing themselves from the political establishment. Anyone associated with the government will have a tough time convincing voters he or she could be part of the solution.

In recent years, confidence in Tunisian institutions has taken a serious beating, except perhaps for security agencies and the military in their fight against terrorism.

There are, hence, doubts about the ability of politicians to pull the country out of its economic predicament. There is even less confidence in their ability to tackle the endemic problem of corruption. Considering the unimpressive results achieved by successive governments since 2011 and the complexity of the problems at hand, such scepticism comes easy.

The anti-establishment streak that is part of the populist narrative of several candidates is too Manichaeistic but it accommodates many voters who have no time for nuances.

As defined in the Guardian by Georgia University Professor Cas Mudde, populism is “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’.”

Kais Said, a candidate with wide appeal, promises a bottom-up political process that would vindicate the “unfinished uprising” of “revolutionary youth.” His supporters look up to him to lead them to victory over “corrupt” elements from the previous regime and foreign powers that deprive Tunisia of its natural resources. Often poaching in the Islamists’ backyard, Said presents himself as a defender of “identity.”

An even more populist candidate, Nabil Karoui, head of the Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia) political party, says it is “from the heart” that he speaks to the poor and is better than all others in his ability to “reach their hearts.” He promises to correct the ills of the system that are at the root of so much poverty and marginalisation.

Opinion polls put him in a good position to be among the front-runners. Even though he is in detention on charges of tax evasion and money laundering, his campaign staff seems confident that his incarceration will only boost his electoral fortunes.

Free Destourian Party President Abir Moussi shares some of the attributes of the populists but also those of more conventional candidates. Moussi doesn’t tire from haranguing crowds and clashing with rivals. Voters who are unhappy with their deteriorating quality of life or are yearning for easier, simpler times have swollen the ranks of her party.

Among many of the candidates, not just Moussi, the legacy of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president, provides a potent symbol of statesman-like vision and leadership. The founding father’s mythology serves as a shelter in current days of uncertainty.

Under the sway of populists and other anti-establishment candidates, voters do not look at programmes, even when they are fully articulated. They are drawn to emotional gratification in their adversarial contests with other contenders. Instead of fixing what doesn’t work, they promise a total overhaul, the Tunisian Constitution and all. Their supporters look for reinforcement and not for discussion of the issues in social media.

Claudia Alvares, associate professor at Lusofona University in Lisbon, said: “The anger that populist politicians manage to channel is fuelled by social media posts because social media are very permeable to the easy spread of emotion. The result is a rise in the polarisation of political and journalistic discourse.”

Populism might have acquired a negative connotation in modern politics even it has been associated with the election of a US president and the triumph of Brexit. It is the political equivalent of popular culture as contrasted to highbrow culture. Long gone are the days when popular culture was frowned upon. Populist and anti-establishment politics attract a growing audience that cannot be dismissed as driven by emotionalism and ignorance.

In these Tunisian elections, much of the public looks for personal appeal of fresh faces with comforting discourse. Convincing programmes draw only a few.

In the country’s world of supply and demand, populism and anti-establishment discourse fulfil the need for voters to express their unhappiness about politicians and their policies. Nobody knows where the anti-establishment wave will lead, considering the divided ranks and endless sniping between the more conventional candidates, especially in the modernist camp. Furthermore, if candidates with true ability to “save Tunisia” underestimate the appeal of the populists, they could be in for a September surprise.