Tunisia's presidential candidates on the offensive ahead of vote

Analysts predicted the highly charged political environment will push voters towards political outsiders.
Saturday 07/09/2019
Tunisian Defence Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi (C) is pictured after submitting his candidacy for the upcoming early presidential elections in the capital Tunis on August 7. (AFP)
Tunisian Defence Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi (C) is pictured after submitting his candidacy for the upcoming early presidential elections in the capital Tunis on August 7. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s presidential election campaign grew tense as allegations of coups, counter-coups and “judicial plots” flew across the political divide.

Twenty-six candidates vying for Tunisia’s highest office began the official campaign season September 2, two weeks before voters were to go to the polls.

The competitive presidential race has drawn candidates from diverse backgrounds and political ideologies, highlighting Tunisia’s status as a free, democratic state.

However, many candidates’ scorched-earth strategies fuelled anguish and confusion in a country whose population is seeking concrete solutions to long-term social and economic grievances.

“I had wished that the campaigns would focus on (candidates’) visions and programmes but unfortunately it is quite the opposite,” said former Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, a candidate himself. “Some are talking of coups, political control of courts and several other accusations, each one more grave than the last.”

Tunisian Defence Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi, who is campaigning as an independent, shocked the country when he declared on national television that he had put the army on “high alert” to prevent a coup allegedly plotted by Islamists and their allies in parliament after President Beji Caid Essebsi fell ill in June.

“I ordered the military to besiege everything (key state buildings), not only the hospital,” Zbidi said.

After Caid Essebsi became “critically ill” on June 27 — known as “Black Thursday” — parliament members with the Islamist Ennahda Movement tried to visit the hospital where the president was being treated. Their aim, Zbidi said, was to check whether the president was conscious and then decide whether to declare a “temporary or total power vacancy,” he said.

Experts speculated that declaring a permanent vacancy could have allowed the Islamists to take over the presidency by fast-tracking a transition. Deputy Parliament Speaker Abdelfattah Mourou, an Ennahda member, was leading parliament at the time because Speaker Mohamed Ennaceur was on a sick leave.

“It is easy to shut down the parliament,” Zbidi said. “It would only take two army tanks to close the two gates of the parliament building. I cannot tell a lie.

“I warned the prime minister (Youssef Chahed) telling him that if the hubbub in parliament were to continue the military institution would intervene to put an end to that trouble.”

Chahed responded that he “was 1,000% in agreement with me,” Zbidi said.

Some claimed that Zbidi’s plan amounted to a military coup and expressed shock at his willingness to involve the military in a political crisis. Zbidi responded that it was “parliament members (who) were plotting a coup against the constitutional order” and that he “was ready to prevent that.”

Talk of a transition of power ended the same day when Caid Essebsi began recovering but the president became ill again less than a month later and died July 25. Ennaceur was installed as interim president and scheduled presidential elections were advanced from November to September 15.

Analysts said the coup remarks by Zbidi were a “communication blunder.” Others said it underlined his anti-Islamist posture and “quiet strength.”

Either way, Zbidi’s view sounded the alarm for Ennahda, furthering tensions between them and their secularist foes.

Ennahda has put its full weight behind Mourou in the presidential race and party President Rached Ghannouchi called on the party’s supporters to rally behind him.

“We will not permit for a single vote from an Ennahda member or sympathiser to be lost to another candidate,” said Ghannouchi. “Ennahda people are not a fluid crowd without discipline and organisation.”

Chahed was singled out by businessman Slim Riahi, another candidate for president, for helping Ennahda in the alleged “plot to topple Caid Essebsi by staging a majority vote in the parliament.”

“Their plot was (to secure) some 145 votes (in the 217-member parliament) to vote the president out of office,” Riahi claimed.

Riahi, who faces criminal charges in Tunisia and is in self-exile abroad, also accused Chahed of opening “corridors within the judiciary to control the judges and punish his adversaries.”

Chahed dismissed accusations that the government influences court verdicts, claiming that “the time when judges pronounced sentences upon orders is over” but supporters of media magnate Nabil Karoui, a leading contender in the race for president and who has been jailed on charges of money laundering and tax evasion, insist Chahed played a role in Karoui’s detention.

Chahed has focused his efforts on countering Zbidi, who has gained support from the country’s traditional secularist base.

Concerned that the divide within Tunisia’s secularist camp could split the vote, a group of academics, lawyers, activists and other prominent figures signed a petition urging secularist candidates to rally behind one contender.

“We draw your attention that a rising number of the citizens from the democratic and modernising landscape are concerned and worried about the high number of candidates with the same political and intellectual family,” read the petition.

“We are sure that you are aware of the grave danger looming over these elections for the future of the democratic transition and the future of the country as a result of your division and split that will benefit the Islamists and populists.”

Tunisia was to have its first series of televised debates among the candidates for president but it was unclear how much effect they would have on voters.

Some analysts predicted the highly charged political environment will push voters towards political outsiders.

“The (winners) may be individuals who still represent the last faith of the revolution in the voters’ minds or even a new model of political activism: more respondent, practical and less vertical,” said University of El Manar Professor Haykel Ben Mahfoudh.

Some analysts said voters may seek to change the status quo by banking on populists who lack experience in government.

“The socio-economic conditions in Tunisia are ripe for the rise of candidates and political entrepreneurs that represent, however distant from lived realities, a shift away from the status quo,” said Laryssa Chomiak, a North Africa affairs expert at Chatham House.