Pre-electoral controversies expose Tunisia’s paradoxes, uncertainties

A legislative move to amend the electoral law only a few months before the election fuelled criticism among intellectuals and political activists.
Saturday 13/07/2019
Poor people’s votes. Nessma TV channel chairman Nabil Karoui speaks during an interview at his office in Tunis, June 18. (AFP)
Poor people’s votes. Nessma TV channel chairman Nabil Karoui speaks during an interview at his office in Tunis, June 18. (AFP)

TUNIS - Polls indicate a popular backlash against the Islamist Ennahda Movement and its secularist allies in the Tunisian government. A declining standard of living, despite government attempts at economic reform, was particularly blamed for the decrease in favourability ratings of Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

The polls’ results exposed Tunisia’s political dilemmas and could muddy legislative and presidential elections in October and November.

Polls point to a lead by Tunisian businessman and television station owner Nabil Karoui in the presidential election, even though he might be legally prevented from running for the office of president.

Parliament members loyal to Ennahda and Chahed voted June 18 for electoral law changes that would exclude certain candidates, including Karoui, from the presidential race.

Karoui faces other roadblocks in addition to the legislative restrictions after the judiciary froze his assets and banned him from travelling abroad, pending his trial for suspected money laundering and tax evasion in a case dating to 2016.

After appearing before a judge on July 12, Karoui claimed his innocence of all accusations. He reiterated his intent to run for office and called for a referendum on the electoral law amendments.

The move to change the electoral law only a few months before the vote fuelled criticism from intellectuals and political activists. They said such a “selective approach” against political challengers would harm the democratic process and expose Tunisia to political and social turbulence.

Critics of the amendments are looking to Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, who has the authority to veto the changes or call a referendum over the parliamentary initiative. If vetoed, the amendments would be sent to parliament for a new vote, needing 60% support to pass.

More than 60% of polled Tunisians said they disapproved of the amendments of the electoral law.

Karoui has built wide popular support by handing out aid to poor people in remote villages and neglected urban areas. His critics accuse him of exploiting people’s poverty for political gain and of unfairly using his access to the TV channel he owns to promote his electoral ambitions. He has already received a warning from the country’s independent TV regulatory body.

Also affected by the amendments is social personality Olfa Terras Rambourg, who had gained sudden notoriety after a massive communication and advertising campaign.

The revised legislation bans candidates who resort to “political advertising” outside regulated electoral campaigns or lead charity NGOs from running for office.

The government’s supporters defended the amendments, arguing they were aimed at addressing “loopholes” that had allowed “populist” politicians to use “unfair tactics” to gain undue influence over voters.

A poll conducted by the Sigma Conseil agency, published July 12 by Le Maghreb newspaper, indicated that Ennahda’s electoral support had fallen from 18% in May to 16.8% in July.

The data indicated Karoui’s Qalb Tounes party could win 29.8% of the vote in parliamentary elections. Ennahda’s 16.8% was second in the poll. The poll showed Karoui was the front-runner in the presidential contest with the support of 23% of respondents, more than three times that of Chahed.

Chahed saw favourability for his party, Tahya Tounes, fall from 16.5% in May to 8.6% in July.

Another surprise in the poll was the strong performance of fierce anti-Islamist lawyer Abir Moussi’s Free Destourian Party, which had the support of 11.3% of potential voters. Analysts predicted the Free Destourian Party could gain more support if Qalb Tounes could not field candidates.

Analysts said the strong showing by Karoui and Qalb Tounes reflects social and political paradoxes, including that almost half of Karoui’s backers were working-class and poor Tunisians, mostly from neglected urban districts and hinterland regions.

In a broader assessment of the records of the Islamists and their secularist allies since 2014, opinion polls indicated that 77.5% of Tunisian respondents perceived the record of the “ruling system” as “bad” and 56.4% described it as “very bad.”

Contrary to their negative views on most aspects of the government’s performance, more than 78% of poll respondents said they saw an improvement in Tunisia’s security situation over the last five years.

Successive polls have indicated mounting disapproval of stances advocated by the Islamists and their allies. This trend is expected to benefit anti-establishment formations.

Liberal activist Rim Mahjoub said the trends reflect “the resentment by citizens towards the current political class.”

Some experts said they fear the pre-electoral controversies could discourage people from voting in October and November.

“With this mentality of ‘all rotten,’ we cannot expect a high voter turnout in the elections and high-skilled people in the parliament,” warned Business News magazine editor Nizar Bahloul.