In mid election cycle, Tunisians fret about possible risks ahead

Analysts said they expect voters to confirm in the parliamentary vote the trend from the first-round presidential vote.
Saturday 05/10/2019
Polarised landscape. A Tunisian woman looks at posters of candidates in legislative elections in Tunis, October 4. (AFP)
Polarised landscape. A Tunisian woman looks at posters of candidates in legislative elections in Tunis, October 4. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisian voters return to the polls amid heightened concerns about the future of their country’s experiment in democracy.

Since the start of the election campaign ahead of presidential and legislative elections, political and legal glitches have seemed endless. Distrust of politicians, judicial imbroglios and fiery rhetoric raised questions about the stability of the Tunisian political system after elections and the ability of any future government to manage the country’s socio-economic crisis.

The electorate dumped its frustrations on the Islamist Ennahda Movement and its secularist allies when it knocked out all candidates with connections to the political system in the first round of the presidential vote.

They picked two outsiders: Kais Saied, a maverick university law teacher with no party affiliation and whose makeshift campaign is headed by a Marxist-Leninist theorist, and Nabil Karoui, a jailed businessman who has become the nemesis of the Islamists in both parliamentary and presidential elections. The presidential runoff is October 13, one week after parliamentary elections.

Nizar Bahloul, editor of Business News magazine, said he sees the country “plunging deep into the abyss.” “When we say that the country will face a situation this year that is worse than the one it faced in 2011, we are choosing our words carefully,” he added.

He was alluding to the 2011 upheaval after the uprising that toppled the regime of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisian law bans the release of polls during election campaigns but experts have said the legislative contest is expected to be a tight race between Karoui’s Qalb Tounes and Ennahda.

Qalb Tounes was formed about three months before the parliamentary vote by Karoui. He banked on his charity drive during the last three years in remote hamlets and neglected poor urban areas of main cities. Karoui canvassed areas where social depression was most obvious.

Karoui owns shares in the popular television channel Nessma, which highlighted his outreach to the poor during which he handed out food, medicine and other aid. He made it to the second round of the presidential vote despite being in jail since August 23 on accusations of money laundering and tax evasion.

His detention has a concern regarding the possible legal challenge if he loses the runoff. He has complained about a “lack of equal opportunity” in the campaign. He was not able to take part in debates ahead of the first round of voting and it is not known if he will be released in time to debate Saied prior to the second round.

A Tunisian court on October 1 turned down an appeal by Karoui to be released from jail ahead of legislative elections.

Another legal issue has clouded the election landscape with the Democratic Current party filing a lawsuit against Karoui, Ennahda and Eish Tounsi for contracting US and Canadian public relations companies and spending amounts above the maximum allowed by Tunisian election law. The judiciary said it would examine the complaint.

Ennahda voiced support for Saied to draw his backers to support its legislative candidates. Ennahda’s campaign strategy is to gain the votes of Saied’s supporters to win the most seats in the parliamentary election and then form a “revolutionary government” if Saied wins the presidency.

“Vote for Ennahda to win parliamentary elections and confirm the victory of Saied,” its main campaign slogan read.

Habib Ellouz, a radical Ennahda leader who was sidelined in the recent years when Ennahda focused on a “Muslim Democrat” image, returned to the forefront of the party alongside other ultraconservative hardliners.

“The only choice we have as revolutionaries now is Ennahda,” said Ellouz.

He warned that, if the Islamists lose, “Tunisia will be ruled by a government that it is an extension of the old regime and corruption and a Mafia-run government.

“Saied’s victory is clear but he will achieve a qualitative leap only if there is a revolutionary government and an alliance between revolutionaries to have the control of a revolutionary government and a revolutionary presidency,” he added.

Some 15,000 candidates, running on more than 1,500 lists, are competing for 217 parliamentary seats, including 119 incumbent members of whom 32 are from Ennahda and ten from Tahya Tounes party, which is led by Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

Analysts said they expect voters to confirm in the parliamentary vote the trend from the first-round presidential vote.

Karoui’s backers escalated their campaign against Ennahda’s leaders, accusing them of involvement in graft, embezzlement, killing three opposition leaders and the recruitment of Tunisian jihadists to fight abroad.

Polarisation is fuelling a thick wave of wariness. “We have more than 200 political parties but the most important is the party of fear. Everyone is scared about the future. More than ever, Tunisia is threatened with grave events,” said Hedi Behi, editor of Leaders magazine.

“Libya, Somalia, Venezuela, Cuba. Tunisia faces the risks to be like one of those countries if independent candidates close to Kais Saied (win),” said Bahloul.

“The anti-establishment vote advocated by these people will push Tunisians into a situation where they would not find any running water to drink, electric power at home, medicine at the pharmacy or foodstuffs on market shelves,” he added.

Risks at home are compounded by an unpredictable shift in Tunisia’s regional environment. Algeria, whose leaders in 2013 helped with advice, financial and security support and helped usher in entente between Islamists and secularists, are trying to cope with its own upheaval. The European Union’s praise for Tunisia for sustaining the course of democracy is dimming into discrete compassion, analysts said.

Tunisia’s political uncertainties do not seem to be part of the US administration’s priorities, although Washington has backed the country with financial and military support, since 2011.

Parliamentary and presidential elections will test the ability of Tunisia’s elites to overcome their differences and accept the verdict of the ballot box. Courts seem bound to play a crucial role and independence of the judiciary might be  for that matter the cornerstone of the process.