Tunisian president signs electoral decree, dispels doubts and rumours after health scare

The signing of the decree will allow Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) to prepare to receiving candidacy papers ahead of a July 22 filing deadline.
Saturday 06/07/2019
Well and back to work. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi sits at his desk at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, July 5. (Reuters)
Well and back to work. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi sits at his desk at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, July 5. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Images of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi smiling surrounded by doctors who treated him at the Tunis Military Hospital ended a national scare about his health.

Admission to the hospital June 27 gave rise to rumours that Caid Essebsi, 92, suffered a mysterious poisoning or that members of parliament were plotting a constitutional coup for his succession.

The problem was compounded by the absence, due to illness, of parliament Speaker Mohamed Ennaceur, who is constitutionally first in line of succession to the presidency.

The illness of both leaders coincided with twin suicide bombings June 27, fanning conspiracy theories about a plot to destabilise the country. Two jihadist bombers set off explosives 10 minutes apart in Tunis, killing a police officer and a civilian. Seven people were injured.

The bombings were the first major deadly attacks claimed by the Islamic State in Tunis since November 2015 when a bus carrying Tunisian presidential guards was attacked. Twelve members of the elite force were killed.

Security forces and the army have dismantled dozens of extremist cells and jailed hundreds of terrorism suspects. Experts said that as extremists are increasingly cut off from supplies and support bases, they are committing isolated suicide acts that fit no clear strategy.

Authorities said the man who was behind the June 27 bombings was killed July 3 while being chased by police.

Caid Essebsi resumed work July 5, signing a decree convening voters for parliamentary and presidential elections late this year. The event, shown on an official video, was followed by a short address by Caid Essebsi to erase doubt about the electoral process and speculation about his health.

“We will continue working, God willing, to complete our mandate until its end in December 2019,” Caid Essebsi said after signing the electoral decree and a second order extending the state of emergency in the country.

Even after the president’s release from the hospital, some politicians argued he was being “held hostage” by his entourage to hide his exact condition to seize control of the presidency.

If Caid Essebsi had failed to sign the electoral decree by July 6, elections would have been postponed, a major setback for the image of the country as nascent democracy.

The signing of the decree will allow Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) to prepare to receiving candidacy papers ahead of a July 22 filing deadline.

ISIE Chairman Nabil Baffoun urged politicians “to stop putting pressure” on the ISIE.

“There is no way to put off the elections. The ISIE respects the electoral mandates, the cycle and the agenda of the elections,” he said July 5. “The ISIE wants to steer clear from political infighting to preserve its legitimacy and credibility at home and abroad.”

Tunisia’s 219 political parties are divided about the elections and opinion polls indicate that the current ruling parties are being overwhelmed by new political currents and personalities.

The Islamist Ennahda Movement and its allies in the coalition government led by secularist Prime Minister Youssef Chahed ensured the adoption of amendments to the electoral law that could block unexpected rivals seen as surging in recent polls.

The powerful Tunisian General Labour Union and the country’s leading business federation, the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, opposed the legislation.

The amended law is widely seen as targeting businessman and television channel owner Nabil Karoui, who has built wide popular support by handing out aid to the poor in remote villages and neglected urban areas. Also affected by the amendments is social personality Olfa Terras Rambourg, who gained sudden attention through a massive advertising campaign.

The government said the amendments were aimed at fixing loopholes that allowed populist politicians to use “unfair tactics” to gain undue influence over voters.

A recent poll, conducted by the Sigma Conseil consulting agency and published June 12 by Le Maghreb newspaper, indicated that Ennahda’s support had fallen from 18% in May to 16.8% in June. The poll showed Ennahda trailing Karoui’s party, which was recently named Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia).

The Sigma Conseil poll data indicated Qalb Tounes could win 29.8% of the vote in parliamentary elections. The survey showed Karoui to be the front-runner in presidential elections.

Despite the advantage of incumbency, Chahed saw favourability for his party, Tahya Tounes, fall from 16.5% in May to 8.6% in June, the poll suggested. Support for Nidaa Tounes, founded by Caid Essebsi, was down from 11.1% to 5% since May.

Another surprise in the poll was the strong performance of the Free Destourian Party led by a fierce anti-Islamist lawyer Abir Moussi, who has the support of 11.3% of potential voters.

Eyes are now on Caid Essebsi, who has the authority to veto the amendments.

Analysts said the move appears to be an opportunity for Caid Essebsi to stand up to Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi and Chahed, who have a de facto alliance not to Caid Essebsi’s liking.

Chahed appeared to be mending ties with Caid Essebsi and his allies during the president’s illness but it was not clear whether the national mood while Caid Essebsi was hospitalised would influence his decision.

Caid Essebsi has not signed the amended electoral law because it is being scrutinised by a legal body, which was urged by opposition deputies to declare them unconstitutional.