The first round of the presidential election in Tunisia takes place this Sunday, September 15th. Today, the country is turning a new page in its history, with the second democratic presidential election since the collapse of the autocratic regime of Zine Ben Ali in 2011. Seven million citizens are expected to get to the polls and cast a ballot, while the socio-economic crisis is deepening, and the political landscape is increasingly fragmented.
Tunisians now enjoy the rights to free expression, free association, along with free and competitive elections, but the socioeconomic conditions of most of them, including the middle class, have continued to deteriorate. The unemployment rate has increased, at about 15% of the working-age population, with young people particularly affected, and twice as much in the neglected and deprived regions of the interior of the country where the uprisings of the so-called “Arab Spring” started. In addition to unemployment, the housing crisis, access to decent and affordable health care services, and the increasing cost of living with an inflation rate of about 7 % are fundamental concerns for millions of Tunisians. On the other hand, the parallel economy is growing, now representing 40% of all economic activities in the country, fostering corruption that has become widespread and endemic.
All of this is happening while the current ruling coalition comprised of the Ennahda Islamist party allied with center-right factions of the secular family have succeeded in derailing the debate over the economy and development issues in general, by focusing on identity and religion. Although many progressives in academia, the media, among civil society organizations and some political parties have called for a revision of Tunisia’s economic development model and the type of integration into the global economy that it entails, whose effects were basically the triggers of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ revolts, the same model still prevails.
Illustrating the fragmentation of Tunisia’s political scene is the huge number of candidates (twenty-six!) running for this presidential election. This is happening while many Tunisian have expressed their disinterest in politics, politicians, and elections. As of this writing, the participation rate in today’s election at the closing of polling stations, is only 45%, according to the local media.
In the 2014 elections, voters had to choose between the Islamists and their secular center-right opponents organized in the ‘Nidaa Tounes’ party founded by the old regime statesman Beji Caid Essebsi, who got elected as president in 2014, and who on July 25, a few weeks before the end of his term, passed away at the age of 95. Since the previous election in 2014, several other disparate political forces without clear ideological or programmatic contours have emerged. As to the party of the late president Essebsi, Nidaa Tounes, it broke out in various factions built more on the basis of personal rivalries and the craving for power, than on ideological or programmatic differences.
The popular protest movement for dignity, justice, economic rights, and democracy, which ended the Ben Ali regime in 2011, was from its initiation supported, and, in some regions of the country, even led, by various progressive social and political forces including the powerful UGTT union organization; before being highjacked by the Islamists, although they have not been part of it –at least as such, that is as Islamists.
However, these secular progressive forces are fragmented, embroiled in personal feuds, and, above all, unable to question and revise their dogmatic and narrowly ideological political vision. As a result, they have contributed to Ennahda’s strengthening its grip on large segments of the working people, the poor and deprived populations, and enabled the rise of the populist right, represented in this election by Abir Moussi, the candidate of a renewed RCD party (formerly of Ben Ali), who seems to be a candidate to contend with.
Another populist candidate who, according to the latest polls, may even win this election, is the newcomer in politics and media tycoon, Nabil Karoui. He became known and popular through his charity work in poor neighborhoods and neglected regions of the country. He is currently in jail for alleged tax fraud.
The other favorite candidates are Youssef Chahed, the current prime minister, and Abdelkrim Zbidi, the minister of defense, an independent close to the late president Essebsi and his Nidaa Tounes party and considered a man of great integrity, and quite popular for that reason in these times of high levels of corruption. Both belong to the center-right tendency in Tunisian politics and do not question the neoliberal orientations of the country, or have presented a credible program to tackle Tunisia’s overwhelming socio-economic problems. The other main contender is Abdelfattah Mourou, the 71-year-old co-founder of the Islamist Ennahdha party, and its first candidate for the presidency. He is expected to do relatively well, but not enough to stand in the second round of the election.
Unless a candidate obtains the absolute majority in the first round, the candidates, and especially their parties, will face a major challenge: that of preparing parallel legislative elections scheduled for October 6, and immediately after that, the second round of the presidential election, which should be held on October 23.
Preliminary results will be announced on Tuesday by the election authority, but, as reported by Reuters news agency this Monday (Sept.16, 2019) morning, “partial election results showed two political outsiders leading the race to become Tunisian president after exit polls showed them advancing to a second-round runoff next month.” Adding that “the independent election commission said conservative law professor Kais Saied and detained media magnate Nabil Karoui were leading.” “If their lead holds, it would represent an earthquake in Tunisian politics and a strong rejection of successive governments …”