Tunisians cast votes in presidential election with no clear front-runner

Presidential candidates vowed to boost Tunisia’s flagging economy and protect the country from deadly attacks by Islamist extremists.
Sunday 15/09/2019
Tunisians wait to cast their votes at a polling station during the country’s presidential election in Tunis, September 15. (Reuters)
Tunisians wait to cast their votes at a polling station during the country’s presidential election in Tunis, September 15. (Reuters)

TUNIS – Tunisians began casting votes in an unpredictable presidential election on September 15 where there is no overwhelming front-runner, with the young democracy’s economic ills dominating the agenda.

Polling stations opened at 8am (07:00 GMT) from the capital Tunis on the Mediterranean coastline to the cork forests of the northwest, the mining towns of the interior and sand-swept Saharan villages in the south.

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, as well as two former prime ministers, a former president and the defence minister are also among the 26 candidates hoping to win outright or, if none of them win more than 50%, to advance to a second round run-off.

Tunisia’s president has direct control over foreign and defence policy while most other portfolios are handled by a prime minister chosen by parliament.

The voting followed a noisy but brief campaign — 12 days — marked by backbiting and charges of corruption among the contenders. All vowed to boost the country’s flagging economy and protect it from further deadly attacks by Islamist extremists.

More than 100,000 security forces were on guard — 70,000 police and 32,000 troops — as 7 million registered voters went to the polls. There was no clear favourite, suggesting that the vote will only be the first round of the presidential election.

The plethora of candidates includes a jailed media magnate, Nabil Karoui, who was arrested last month in a money laundering and tax evasion probe but led polls ahead of the vote. He was allowed to remain in the race because he has not been convicted.

Chahed, 44, and the vice president of the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, Abdelfattah Mourou, 71, were also getting attention. Two women are also running.

Two candidates pulled out in favour of the man who served as Chahed’s Defence minister, Abdeldrim Zbidi, but it was too late to pull their names from the ballot.

Preliminary results are expected on September 16 or 17. If no candidate wins more than 50% of the September 15 vote, the presidential election goes to a second round that must be held no later than November 3. The date of the runoff will be announced once the final first-round results are declared.

Tunisia is also holding its parliamentary election on October 6, adding another challenge since the new president’s success will depend on having support in parliament.

The first-round vote is only the second democratic presidential election that Tunisia has seen since a popular uprising brought down former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and triggered the “Arab Spring” uprisings across the region. 

The September 15 election follows the death in office in July of the nation’s first democratically elected leader, Beji Caid Essebsi.

(AW and agencies)