Tunisia’s Islamist chief steps up to legislative race but presidential vote will go first

No fewer than 15,737 candidates will be contending for seats in the 217-member parliament on October 6.
Saturday 03/08/2019
Election season. Nabil Baffoun, head of Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections, speaks during a news conference  in Tunis, July 30.  (AFP)
Election season. Nabil Baffoun, head of Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections, speaks during a news conference in Tunis, July 30. (AFP)

TUNIS - Islamist Ennahda Movement President Rached Ghannouchi, breaking repeated pledges that he would not seek political office, joined an unprecedented number of candidates for Tunisia’s October 6 parliamentary elections.

Ghannouchi’s candidacy came amid controversy fuelled by his reshuffle of party candidacy lists outside the usual internal selection process. Analysts said Ghannouchi, nearing the end of his 4-year term as party leader, aimed to accomplish several goals with his shifting of names on Ennahda’s lists.

If he does well in the elections, Ghannouchi could use his win as a springboard for continued power as speaker of parliament or head of government when his term as Ennahda’s president ends nearly next year. The party succession battle is expected to be a bruising fight, analysts said.

Ghannouchi’s gambit, however, could boomerang if legislative elections reveal an erosion of popular support for Ennahda. By sidelining several leading party figures from the parliamentary election, Ghannouchi risks provoking disaffection from the usually loyal Ennahda voter base, analysts said.

Ghannouchi leads the list of Ennahda’s 11 candidates in the Tunis 1 district. Removed from that list was Abdellatif Mekki, a key Ennahda figure and former health minister. The same fate befell many others on the 32 lists of Ennahda’s candidates selected through an internal voting process.

Mekki and other top figures removed from the list of candidates challenged Ghannouchi’s style of managing the party.

“His decision stripped the party of one of its main democratic internal assets: democracy. Of its central democracy rule, only central is spared and that is dangerous for the party’s unity,” said Ennahda Vice-President Abdelhamid Jelassi.

There are 15,737 candidates contending for seats in the 217-member parliament. That record number indicates the free-for-all mood of the political climate in Tunisia, where more than 220 political parties have legal standing but have yet to develop political or economic agendas or find charismatic leaders in the image of late Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi.

Caid Essebsi died July 25, leaving a gaping hole in the country’s political landscape as other leaders’ personalities pale in comparison to him. His death created another problem for parliamentary candidates: They will have to run after and not before the presidential elections as previously scheduled.

The first round of the presidential vote is set for September 15. Most Tunisian political experts expect the choice of the president to create a ripple effect on the legislative elections.

Despite the additional hurdle this constitutes for Ennahda, which is unlikely to field a credible presidential candidate, analysts said they believe Islamists could score relatively well if the party keeps its voter unity despite the anger stirred by Ghannouchi’s move.

“The number of candidates and lists of candidates highlighted the fractioning and splintering the electoral map and political landscape with consequences for the results. There are no parties with easily identifiable ideological identity and a strong core of support that could weather such division and confusion like Ennahda,” said political analyst Abdellatif Hannachi.

Political analyst Habib Bouajila said he did not expect a high voter turnout, with 2 million-3 million voters expected to cast ballots out of an electorate of 7.1 million.

“Ennahda will lose voters but it will have a good ranking probably the first winner,” he said.

Polls, however, indicate emerging contenders who might change the lineup of the country’s political forces.

Polls suggest a possible backlash against Ennahda and its secularist allies in government. It is not clear though who would benefit from that political discontent.

A declining standard of living, despite government attempts at economic reform, was cited for the decrease in favourability ratings for Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and his Islamist ruling coalition partners.

Polls indicated that Nabil Karoui’s Qalb Tounes party could win 29.8% of the vote in parliamentary elections, with Ennahda second at 16.8%. Polls also showed Karoui to be the front-runner in the presidential contest with the support of 23% of those asked, more than three times that of Chahed.

Chahed saw his party approval fall from 16.5% in May to 8.6% in July.

Another surprise in the polls was the strong performance of fierce anti-Islamist lawyer Abir Moussi’s Free Destourian Party, to which the poll gave the support of 11.3% of potential voters.

Legislative candidates will have to compete for attention as the public increasingly focuses on the presidential election. The campaign by candidates for the highest executive office will take place September 1-13. The list of presidential candidates is expected to be quite long.