Variegated election landscape reflects changed face of Tunisian politics

There is more than one candidate claiming to represent any of the three main political camps — the secularists, the leftists and the Islamists.
Saturday 17/08/2019
Supporters of the Tahya Tounes party celebrate after Prime Minister Youssef Chahed submitted his candidacy for the presidential elections in Tunisia, August 9. (AFP)
Working the crowd. Supporters of the Tahya Tounes party celebrate after Prime Minister Youssef Chahed submitted his candidacy for the presidential elections in Tunisia, August 9. (AFP)

TUNIS - In a country that prides itself for having the world’s largest collection of Roman mosaics, Tunisia’s political scene ahead of presidential elections September 15 looks a lot like a colourful mosaic.

The 26 candidates whose bids were approved by Tunisia’s Independent Election Authority are offering voters diverse views on why they are the most competent to be president and why their rivals are not.

This is a far cry from Tunisia’s 2014 presidential election. There is more than one candidate claiming to represent any of the three main political camps — the secularists, the leftists and the Islamists. This has created a free-for-all battle royale in each camp.

The secularist field is crowded with contenders. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, 43, faces stiff competition from former Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, former Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa and at least ten other modernist candidates.

Among the four or five candidates competing for the Islamist vote, Ennahda Vice-President Abdelfattah Mourou, is the formal candidate of the Islamist party.

Political scientist Sahbi Khalfaoui said the situation represents a change of paradigm. “Each movement has its own candidate. Ennahda, for instance, has fielded a bid by one of its leaders. This will make it possible to know the level of support enjoyed by the party,” he told Paris’s Le Monde newspaper.

Slow economic growth, high unemployment and a deteriorating standard of living have fuelled distrust of politicians and led candidates to distance themselves from the ruling establishment.

This explains the strong appeal of populist views to voters, as illustrated by positive reactions to the relentless drive by Heart of Tunisia leader Nabil Karoui targeting the poor and the marginalised, the anti-corruption message of Kais Said who is courting Islamists and young radicals or the call for a “Third Republic” by Free Destourian Party leader Abir Moussi.

Often, however, the voters’ choices seem based less on programmes, especially dealing with complex economic challenges, than on the personal draw of the politicians. This is the key consideration for the so-called populist figures but also for more orthodox candidates such as Zbidi, who is basking in the prestige of the military as the most trusted state institution in Tunisia. Opinion polls indicate the army is deeply respected by Tunisians because of its role in fighting terrorism and in shielding the democratic transition over the last eight years. The recent successful management of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi’s funeral enhanced the prestige of the army.

Zbidi, 69, summed up his programme in five pledges that position him as a loyal heir to Caid Essebsi and the main adversary of the Islamists and their allies in the elections.

Despite the splintering, the second round of voting, to take place by early November unless a candidate wins more than 50% of the vote September 15, could see a more polarised landscape with modernists opposed to Islamists.

Zbidi, in his campaign pledges, vowed to “strictly enforce the law and disclose the truth about the cases of assassinations, recruitment of jihadists and the secret organisation, without any political calculations.”

A leftist lawsuit alleged the assassinations of political leaders Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid in 2013 were plotted by an Islamist “secret security apparatus.” A separate lawsuit claimed Ennahda leaders facilitated recruitment and travel to Syria of hundreds of jihadists. The accusations have been vehemently denied by Ennahda.

Chahed is likely also to stress his secularist credentials and his role in the investigation of accusations to Ennahda about its alleged involvement in the “secret organisation.”

The election campaign doesn’t begin until September 2 but the focus of candidates seems to be more on enhancing their profile than in explaining campaign platform.

Political debates during the campaign could change that but, for the time being, social media wars are getting more attention than discussion of ideas that Tunisia’s pluralistic landscape could offer to the public.

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