Tunisia faces aftershocks of populists’ triumph in presidential election

Law Professor Kais Saied (pictured), won the first round as the ultimate outsider.
Saturday 21/09/2019
Tunisian presidential candidate Kais Saied. (AFP)
Tunisian presidential candidate Kais Saied. (AFP)

TUNIS - It will take a long time for Tunisia to deal with the implications of the quake that shook the political landscape in the first round of presidential elections.

The September 15 vote was a triumph for populists, whose seven candidates won about 55% of the vote. None of the modernist candidates won much more than 10% of the vote in a race that repudiated all centrist parties if not the entire political establishment.

A runoff is to be held by October 13 and legislative elections are to take place October 6 but the first round of the presidential race has shown that nothing will probably be the same in Tunisian politics.

Law Professor Kais Saied (pictured), won the first round as the ultimate outsider, with 18.4% of the vote ahead of media magnate Nabil Karoui, still in detention, who came second with 15.6% of the ballots cast.

Ennahda’s Islamists were not spared post-election fallout. With its members shaken by the failure of the party’s

 candidate to advance to the second round and its shrinking electoral base, unprecedented expressions of dissidence emerged challenging the party’s leadership.  The Islamist party is estimated to have lost nearly 1 million voters since 2011.

A victory by Saied was predicted in the runoff, leading to wariness among experts that new populist pressures, buttressed by the youth factor, could make the task of any future government more difficult. Tunisian pollster Hassan Zargouni said 37% of people aged 18-25 voted for Saied.

Distrustful of the political establishment, many young activists have used social media to back Saied as an anti-establishment candidate. “They mostly know what they do not want but have no clear vision of what they want. Let’s just hope nobody is manipulating them,” Zargouni said.

“The risks of a worsening economic situation are

greater, so are the uncertainties, the possibility of more instability and lack of trust,” said Mustapha Kamel Nabli, a former Tunisian minister of development and World Bank official.

The sense of uncertainty was increased by Saied’s intent, if elected, to replace the parliamentary institution with a system of direct local representation as part of a “new revolutionary transition.” He said his followers are “absolutely not concerned” about legislative elections scheduled for October 6.

The electoral tremors coincided with the death September 19 of former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. He was buried in Saudi Arabia where he had lived in exile since his regime was toppled in 2011.