On Saturday, Tunisia's electoral commission announced the final list of 26 presidential candidates who are going to contend in the September 15 election. A wide range of contenders, approved from almost 100 candidate applications, include some figures who are already widely known and others trying to break through. They are all competing to differentiate themselves to gain the support of voters and lead the country in its last phase of democratic transition.
The ballot was moved up from its originally scheduled November date following the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi on July 25.
Tunisia's president controls foreign and defence policy, ruling alongside a prime minister appointed by parliament, who has authority over domestic affairs.
Tunisia has a line-up of individuals who come from different camps, ranging from Islamists to liberal democrats, leftists, all the way to populists, in a changing political landscape that reflects an existing split between traditional parties and anti-establishment politics.
Some of the most prominent names are Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, head of the secular Tahya Tounes party, a splinter of the larger Nidaa Tounes party; Moncef Marzouki, who served as president for three years after the 2011 revolution; and Abdelfattah Mourou, the first presidential candidate to have been put forward by the Muslim democratic Ennahdha party.
Media magnate and businessman Nabil Karoui, who has used his own private channel Nessma TV to build popular support, was one of the leading contestants before his recent arrest on charges of money laundering and tax evasion, a move that his party said it was a politically motivated attempt to exclude him from the election race.
Other contenders include a prominent female candidate, Abir Moussi, who leads the Free Destourian Party (PDL), anti-Islamist and nostalgic for ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and an unaffiliated constitutional law expert, Kais Saied.
The current Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, is another rising candidate. A former Ben Ali-era minister, Zbidi presented himself as an independent, though he is backed by the secular Afek Tounes and Nidaa Tounes.
Also in the race is Mohamed Abbou, founder of the social-democratic Attayar Party, which has made gains among young Tunisians looking for a more radical alternative to the status quo.
The established political candidates will face a clear challenge from newcomers such as Karoui, a chief critic of Prime Minister Chahed, and the independent Saied.
Voters have grown disillusioned with the political establishment amid public anger over continuing sluggish economic growth, high inflation and widespread unemployment eight years after the 2011 revolution.
Such disenchantment has opened the way for a flow of independent presidential runners. There is rising support for anti-establishment candidates that seek a real break with Tunisia’s modern political history, which could place one of these candidates in a winning position.
“The crisis of governability can be a reason for a large part of the voters to undo traditional political ties, cut short with scorching polemics, and instead follow non-partisan candidates. They 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,” Haykel Ben Mahfoudh, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, articulated in a commentary written in June.
With a persistent economic crisis, aggravated by government instability, Tunisia’s secularist forces are split. The ruling Nidaa Tounes party is especially fractured. Several former top Nidaa members, including Chahed and former party executive committee member Mohsen Marzouk, defected to pursue their own political paths. While the prime minister is at the head of the newly created Tahya Tounes, Marzouk now heads Machrouu Tounes, a break off from Nidaa Tounes that includes centre-right and centre-left factions.
The Ennahdha party, which has the largest bloc in parliament, has remained possibly the most stable political player by working across ideologies and garnering strong local support, however it has seen a decline in its popularity alongside its main secularist allies in government. Mourou is likely one of the stronger candidates in the vote. Some party leaders are alert over the risk of polarisation with secularists who could unite to defeat the Islamists in the two elections.
The leftist camp is the most threatened by divisiveness, according to analysts. Two candidates, Mongi Rahoui and founder of the Popular Front (FP) coalition Hamma Hammami, are competing with the former supported by the left-wing Al Watad and Al Taliaa and the latter enjoying the backing of most of the parties in the FP. Without strong political parties, the country’s left has little chance to win the elections.
Aytug Sasmaz, prospective political scientist and PhD candidate at Harvard University, argued that the diverse electoral landscape indicates both how fragmented the party system and how unsatisfied Tunisians are with political parties -from the secularist block as well as the Ennahdha movement.
In addition, he noted, the two-round electoral system gives incentive to many hopeful individuals to run for the presidency.
Presidential candidates would reflect more personalities than party platforms and affiliation.
“The high number of presidential hopefuls comes from the fragmented party system and the fact that Tunisian citizens distrust their parties, with politics turning more personalised,” Sasmaz, the political observer said. “Having a two-round system also makes these emerging contestants think they stand a good chance on the ballot.”
In his view, the new aspiring candidates are “navigating through a trade-off” whereby they are trying to distance themselves from political parties on the one hand, while also aware they need to have parties and large parliamentary groups in order to win the elections, on the other. This is the case of media mogul Karoui, law professor Saied, Chahed and of businesswoman Selma Elloumi Rekik, for example, who created their own political groups.
Many public opinion polls show that Tunisians have negative attitudes towards parties. Based on a survey compiled by the International Republican Institute (IRI) between January and February 2019, 70 percent of Tunisians distrust political parties “somewhat” or “a great deal”.
Yet, keeping in mind the massive public mistrust in party politics, there are doubts over participation in the upcoming elections and whether absenteeism or a sanction vote should be expected to punish the ruling class.
Voter turnout in Tunisia has dramatically declined in each of the three post-revolution elections.
“[…] some Tunisians won’t vote. Some will vote for populist, anti-establishment candidates. And a larger number will vote for candidates emerging from the establishment who they believe protect them from other candidates who also emerge from the establishment,” William Lawrence, visiting professor at George Washington University, anticipated in his analysis for the Middle East Institute a few days ago.
One crucial issue in this year’s elections has to do with the changed order of the polls. The Tunisian political field is crowded with more than 220 parties, and parties only need to win three percent of the vote to enter parliament, which could make it difficult for any political group, including more influential parties such as Ennahda, Tahya Tounes or Heart of Tunisia, to emerge from the legislative elections as a clear winner. Therefore, most political parties view the presidential elections as a launch pad to gain visibility before the parliamentary vote.
With the rise of the now-jailed populist Karoui, Zbidi who the Bourguibist camp is trying to designate as Essebsi’s successor, Mourou representing Ennahda's most popular figure nationally, premier Chahed, Abbou of the Democratic Movement, PDL’s female leader Moussi, and academic Saied as the other frontrunner, all scenarios are possible in the September 15 vote.