Election rhetoric races to the bottom ahead of Tunisia’s vote

An incarcerated contender, "coup" assertions flood the media.
Saturday 07/09/2019
Tunisian Prime Minister and presidential hopeful Youssef Chahed speaks during an election campaign in Tunis. (AFP)
Heated campaigns. Tunisian Prime Minister and presidential hopeful Youssef Chahed speaks during an election campaign in Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia is getting ready to choose its second democratically elected president since its 2011 uprising and there are several key features in the 2019 vote.

Because of the death in office of President Beji Caid Essebsi, early elections will precede the parliamentary vote scheduled for October 6 and the field for president is crowded with 26 hopefuls.

Two candidates have serious legal troubles.

Nabil Karoui, considered a leading contender for president, is in jail over charges of tax evasion and money laundering.

Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections upheld Karoui’s right to continue running for office despite his detention. In Karoui’s absence, his wife, Salwa Smaoui, has emerged as his proxy spokeswoman at campaign events and TV interviews.

Slim Riahi, a presidential hopeful with many previous run-ins with the law, is in France after having been indicted in absentia on charges of money laundering.

He granted a 2-hour-long interview to Elhiwar Ettounsi television in which he lumped accusations of interference with the judiciary against Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

Beyond the two cases, there has been controversy about legal and ethical practices by candidates and the media during the campaign. Chawki Tabib, president of the National Anti-Corruption Authority, warned against “the political system becoming the property of tainted money lobbies in Tunisia and abroad.”

Government experience did not provide much of an advantage to Chahed, running for president while temporarily relinquishing his duties as prime minister. His economic record has been assailed by rivals although he defends the results achieved during his tenure.

TV interviews — and probably the unprecedented televised debates scheduled for before the election — have become the chosen venue for acrimonious attacks between candidates and for huge revelations.

Minister of Defence Abdelkrim Zbidi, who is campaigning as an independent, said he had put the army on high alert and took measures to abort a “coup,” which, he said, was being hatched by parliamentary conspirators who wanted to take advantage of Caid Essebsi’s and parliament Speaker Mohamed Ennaceur’s health issues to declare a vacancy at the head of the state.

The revelations reportedly provoked tremors in the Islamist Ennahda Movement, since they were from a candidate who has taken pain to distance himself from Islamists.

A week before elections, it is unclear how the no-holds-barred campaign will affect the vote. It also remains to be seen if all the 26 candidates choose to remain in the race.

Experts said the withdrawal of some candidates in support of others could change projections and give modernists, in particular, a better chance at getting to the second round, if there is to be one.