Tunisia’s parliament adopts law banning surging candidates from elections, sparks controversy

The revised legislation bans candidates who resort to “political advertising” or distribute “aid to the population” from running for office.
Sunday 23/06/2019
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed at the Assembly of the Representatives of the People in Tunis,  April 4, 2019. (AFP)
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed at the Assembly of the Representatives of the People in Tunis, April 4, 2019. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s ruling 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 the way for unexpected rivals seen as surging in opinion polls.

Legislative and presidential elections are scheduled for October and November.

The electoral amendments were approved June 18 in parliament by Islamist members, who have the most seats in the 217-member body, backed by three secularist groups, sparking sharp criticism among many political activists and intellectuals who described the move as a “stain of shame” on the nascent democracy.

Some political analysts expressed concern over the amendments’ possible impact on the country’s reputation as it seeks financial and security assistance from the West and asks for more patience at home from Tunisians confronted with social and economic hardship.

The powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) and the country’s leading business federation, the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA) both opposed the legislation. And the move appears to be a golden opportunity for President Beji Caid Essebsi to stand up to Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi and Chahed, who have a de facto alliance not appreciated by Caid Essebsi, who has the authority to veto 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 is social personality Olfa Terras Rambourg, who has gained sudden notoriety through a massive communication and advertising campaign.

The revised legislation bans candidates who resort to “political advertising” or distribute “aid to the population” from running for office.

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

It claimed the legislation did not set financial limits to charity associations and did not prevent them from receiving foreign funding.

“The legislation aims at closing up these legal loopholes and ensuring equal chances for all candidates,” said government spokesman Iyed Dahmani

The new electoral legislation will also ban candidates who engage in the “apology of human rights violations.” Critics say such a vague provision could be used against rival candidates such as Abir Moussi, leader of the Free Destourian Party, because of her advocacy of judicial exclusion of Islamists from politics and her derision of the 2011 uprising as a “foreign conspiracy.” Moussi said she was not concerned by the amendment.

Karoui, Moussi and Terras Rambourg have emerged as the main challengers of the Islamists and their secularist allies in the upcoming elections, according to opinion polls.

The straw vote, conducted by the Sigma Conseil agency and published June 12 by Le Maghreb newspaper, showed Ennahda’s electorate support falling from 18% in May to 16.8% in June. It was the first time since early 2011 that Ennahda had fallen so quickly and sharply in a poll.

The June poll indicated Ennahda trailing a yet to be formed political entity — known as the Karoui Party — established by Karoui. The Sigma Conseil data indicated the Karoui Party could win 29.8% of the vote in parliamentary elections compared to 16.8% for Ennahda. The poll showed Karoui to be the potential frontrunner in presidential elections.

Karoui, who owns the influential Nessma TV channel and has until now been on friendly terms with Islamist leaders, is widely popular because of his television programmes and direct outreach to the poor.

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

Another surprise in the poll was the strong performance of Moussi’s party, which garnered the support of 11.3% of potential voters.

Local media reported that Ennahda’s leaders initially doubted the accuracy of the opinion polls but changed their minds when they received similar feedback through their own polling.

Their stance has pushed Karoui to speak up against Islamists. “We used to see Ennahda for eight years tell people it is defending a democratic form of Islam after suffering exclusion under the Ben Ali regime. But they voted for a law to exclude others in an attempt to keep power. History and the people will not forgive them for that,” said Karoui.

“The government and its parliament members by legislatively sidelining its annoying rival candidates fail to understand that the democratic weapon of mass destruction they used undermines the fragile Tunisian democracy,” said political writer Marouen Achouri.

“Why did the government stand idle while Karoui and Terras were busy reaching out to the population through their charity works for two years?” asked political activist Omar Shabou.

“If Chahed is thinking to get more voters by making such a move, he is mistaken. People will turn even more against him as his government gave them only failure after failure,” he added.

Leftist opposition Popular Front spokesman Hamma Hammami said: “what happened in the parliament June 18 underscored the fact that our democracy is rotten and polluted with dirty money.”

Tunisian academic and social media activist Olfa Youssef said the new law failed to “ban the apology of terrorism. This is natural in this parliament because those who rule the country and those who back them are terrorists.”

Terras said “the parties which backed the law change will lose as the people will punish them in the elections.”

Analysts say that banning figures such as Karoui and Terras is an indirect reflection of the deteriorating social climate, with the poor feeling the state has left them out and are willing to “punish” the political establishment in next elections.

“The state is leaving the social field for charity associations to fill and some charity groups have no qualms to politically control these poor,” said university teacher and writer Amel Grami.

Eyes are now on Caid Essebsi, who has the power and the political motive to veto the law.

“Beji Caid Essebsi has revenge to take against Ennahda and Chahed, all within the strict implementation of the constitution and the law,” said Business News online newspaper editor Nizar Bahloul.