Tunisia’s presidential elections too splintered to call

“The upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections will decide the political future of Tunisia for up to the next 30 years," said Tunisian Interim President Mohamed Ennaceur.
Saturday 17/08/2019
The head of Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections Nabil Baffoun (C) speaks during a news conference to announce the approved candidacies for the upcoming presidential election, August 14. (DPA)
Crowded race. The head of Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections Nabil Baffoun (C) speaks during a news conference to announce the approved candidacies for the upcoming presidential election, August 14. (DPA)

TUNIS - A total of 26 presidential hopefuls have had their bids endorsed by Tunisia’s elections watchdog. The formalisation of the candidacies sets off a crowded but splintered presidential race.

If no candidate wins a majority of the vote September 15, the top two vote-getters would advance to a second-round by November 3. In between are parliamentary elections October 6.

While the number of presidential contenders is similar to the 27 who ran in 2014, the September 2-13 election campaign takes place on a political landscape very different than five years ago, which marked Tunisia’s first free pluralistic presidential vote.

In those elections, the charismatic Beji Caid Essebsi unified disparate components of the secularist camp, including a majority of women voters, to beat the Islamist Ennahda Movement’s and Islamist-supported candidates, first in parliamentary elections and then in presidential polls where the Islamist vote went mostly to Moncef Marzouki, a historic figure of the country’s human rights movement.

In 2019, Ennahda is fielding its own presidential candidate in a fierce competition that is expected to set the tone for the subsequent parliamentary elections.

Tunisia’s presidential elections were scheduled for November 17 but the death July 25 of Caid Essebsi while in office triggered a constitutionally mandated change in the election date. Parliament Speaker Mohamed Ennaceur will serve as interim president until October 23, as stated in the constitution.

At least four candidates, including Ennahda Vice-President Abdelfattah Mourou, will try to draw the Islamist vote. No fewer than 12 aspirants will be seeking the anti-Islamist vote but experts said that the divided ranks could lead to the secularists scoring poorly in both elections.

The increased number of registered voters and the growing attraction of populist trends after eight years of economic crisis and social depression make the outcome of the vote unpredictable.

“The upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections will decide the political future of Tunisia for up to the next 30 years,” said Ennaceur.

Nearly 100 people submitted presidential candidacies but that list included aspirants who did not fulfil legally mandated conditions and Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections endorsed the bids of only 26 candidates.

The confirmed candidacies represented all the country’s political and ideological views, ranging from Islamists, radical Islamic fundamentalists to centrist secularists and communists and other leftists. Most political parties insisted on being represented in the presidential elections at least to gain visibility ahead of the parliamentary vote.

Tunisia boasts more than 220 parties, most of which are fielding candidates or backing independent slates in the parliamentary elections.

The crowded landscape could make it difficult for any political group, including more influential parties such as Heart of Tunisia, Ennahda, Tahya Tounes or the Free Destourian Party to win more than 20% of the vote. As a result, leading parties look at the presidential elections as a springboard for the following parliamentary polls.

The presidential race losers, however, could face problems in reversing negative perceptions in the short period between elections.

Tunisia’s electoral outcome is likely to be affected by the widespread discontent about the performance of previous governments that have been unable to address the country’s problems, including high inflation, unemployment and regional disparities.

Such frustrations were underlined by the shortage of running water during Eid al-Adha, prompting protesters to blockade roads.

Voter turnout has dropped sharply in each of the three elections since 2012 with Ennahda and main secularist allies in government losing popular support.

Ennahda pulled in 1 million fewer votes in last year’s municipal elections compared to its general elections showing in 2012. The secularist Nidaa Tounes, a party founded by Caid Essebsi, shed two-thirds of its votes in the same period.

Ennahda, whose leaders considered skirting the presidential elections to avoid being punished by voters, changed strategy after early presidential elections were called ahead of the legislative polls. It chose Mourou, the number two figure of the Islamist party and the interim speaker of parliament.

It is not clear how Mourou will do in the first round. Some Ennahda leaders expressed wariness over the risk of polarisation with secularists who could unify to beat the Islamists in both elections.

The elections fight in the secularist camp could develop into a bitter battle between Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and Defence Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi.

Liberal and modernist figures in the secularist camp urged other contenders to withdraw and back Zbidi, whose popularity rose after he supervised Caid Essebsi’s funeral. Zbidi’s reputation has benefited from the high level of public trust in the military.

Analysts said the leftist camp is the most threatened by divisiveness. Three leftist candidates — Hamma Hammami, Mongi Rahoui and Abid Briki — are competing for a shallow pool of supporters.

The Islamists are divided into at least four camps represented by Mourou; former Prime Minister Hammadi Jebali, a former Ennahda leader who broke with the party; Hachemi al-Hamdi, a former Ennahda leading figure based in London; and Kais Said, an academic whose ideas appeal to Islamist and ultraconservative constituencies.

“With multiple candidates in each camp, the criteria of the ideological vote are not relevant. This blurs further the issues and muddies the waters with the scattering of the voters in each camp,” said political writer Marouen Achour.

“This makes the elections too close to call and all the scenarios are possible, especially with the impact of the outcome in the following parliamentary elections. The only certainty is that Tunisia will enter a decisive moment in its history on September 15.”