Tunisians cast votes in a highly competitive presidential election to punish the political elite amid widespread discontent at economic hardship eight years into the 2011 revolution.
TUNIS — On Sunday, Tunisian voters cast their ballots in an early election that was moved forward by the death in July of President Beji Caid Essebsi, who had served as head of state since 2014. It was the second presidential election since former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled during the 2011 revolution.
In what was anticipated to be an unpredictable election. The first exit polls projected independent outsider and law professor Kais Saied, and jailed media magnate Nabil Karoui, as finalists to go through to the second round, with approximately 19.5 percent of the vote for the former and 15.5 percent the latter.
Among the top candidates, Abdelfattah Mourou of the party Ennahdha and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed are projected to take third (around 11 percent) and fifth (7-8 percent) place respectively.
Chahed, whose popularity has crumbled amid persistent economic woes, represents the most direct continuation of the current government’s policy platform.
The electoral commission (ISIE) reported that turnout was just above 45 percent, down from 64 percent recorded in a first-round in 2014. Though the participation rate seems low, one needs to keep in mind that this year the election body registered some 1.5 million new voters.
On the other hand, it reflects to a large extent fatigue and frustration with the electorate as a series of surveys have shown in recent years.
“Tunisians are disappointed because for the last eight years there was basically no progress in their economic condition,” Tunisian political analyst Youssef Cherif told the Financial Times. “Today’s politicians and candidates are the ones being blamed by the majority of the population.”
Max Gallien, a political scientist specialised in North African politics, warned caution in interpreting turnout rates, noting that some very low turnout rates have been seen in “countries that we would otherwise perceive as rather stable and successful democratic regimes”.
As to what low participation in the first round would mean for the second round, Gallien earlier said: “It would put the task to the remaining candidates to conserve trust in the process, but also make an offer to the electorate that manages to build a broader tent was necessary in the first round.”
Several observers read the abstentionism reported on Sunday as a wilful stance taken by voters rather than a loss of interest. An act of disapproval expressed either by not voting or giving their vote to candidates outside the current governing coalition.
After two presidents, nine governments and years of broken promises since the Arab Spring, Tunisians found themselves caught between dissatisfaction and a vote scattered across a plethora of contenders. Those who made it to the polls were essentially choosing between well-known figures from the establishment class, others who presented themselves as anti-establishment -trying to distance themselves from a discredited political elite- and a fresh portion of anti-system politicians.
With such a large number of hopefuls in the race, there was a possibility that Sunday’s ballot would result in a very close outcome, with a narrow gap of votes separating the two candidates who make the second-round run-off and the others.
Official preliminary results are expected by Tuesday. However, if the projections are confirmed, the outcome of the first round will send a loud ‘No’ to traditional political parties and shake up Tunisia’s already shifting political landscape. It will bring anti-system politics in the political scene posing a new challenge to party-politics.
With no clear frontrunner in the race, and uncertainty over the election’s outcome from the beginning, Sunday’s surprise result suggested by polls would mean a huge slap in the face of the entire political class. In particular, it would send a message that Tunisians have rejected political actors associated with the country’s two main political camps who have dominated for the last years, both the secularist block and the moderate Muslim Ennahda party.
Most Tunisian voters are seeking a leader who can revive the economy and scale down the soaring cost of living, as it clearly emerged from common grievances voiced by many outside polling stations in the capital.
A man in his 30s with the name of Haykel said he wanted to exercise his right to vote and choose an independent candidate because he was “fed up with political parties”.
He is among many Tunisians who are frustrated with politicians’ inability to boost the economy, fight rampant unemployment and improve the purchasing power of the average citizen.
Nouri, aged over 70 years old, deemed the leadership that has ruled the country since the last elections in 2014 “incompetent”, noting that leaders are still confronting a struggling economy. This year, he was keen on taking part in what he hoped would bring about change through his vote.
Those disadvantaged are particularly upset about the lack of action from the state around poor communities.
“We are full of problems. Nothing works here and no one lifts a finger!”, said Latifa, who is almost 50 years old, referring to the bad infrastructure and poor public services in the informal settlement where she lives in the city’s outskirts.
In Ettadhamen, a popular suburb of Tunis, less people are visibly bothered about the election. Most young people could be seen filling up cafes. Many in the neighbourhood did not go to the ballot, much less than in the previous presidential vote according to some residents.
Many voters were undecided, having to choose from a crowded field of candidates. Two of the 26 initial contenders had withdrawn from the race two days before the ballot to support an opposing candidate.
Mohamed, 53, an employee at Tunis’ municipality, explained he had done a pre-selection to narrow down his choice to three candidates then picked his favourite. He hoped his chosen contestant can “live up to citizens’ expectations” and commit to combatting corruption and fighting poverty.
His friend Romdhane, 45, who’s unemployed, was both hesitant and wary about voting. He still had not made up his mind on election day.
The surprise exit poll favouring outsiders in Sunday’s vote is telling of the general dissatisfaction with the post-2011 political establishment and the economic hopelessness many Tunisians feel.
As the poll indicated that neither candidate secured a majority of votes to win in the first round, both Saied and jailed media magnate Karoui are set to face each other in the next, decisive round.
Unaffiliated constitutional law expert Saied, who’s leading the race, described the exit poll results as “like a new revolution” in a radio interview stating that his win “brings a big responsibility to change frustration to hope”.
Karoui, representing Qalb Tounes (the Heart of Tunisia), is in prison on money laundering and tax evasion charges. In a message read by his wife after the exit polls were released, he said it was a message to a political elite that he accuses of using the judicial process to try to silence him.
The media mogul has been allowed to remain in the race because he has not been convicted.
The head of the election body, Nabil Baffoun, announced on Sunday that in the event Karoui proves guilty and is convicted, he will be out of the race and the second round will see the two candidates ranking first and third in the second round. It means Saied would be in the runoff with Ennahdha’s Mourou, in which case, Tunisians will be called to vote between an independent and a prominent politician from the country’s largest party.
The date of the second round and final round has not been announced, but it must happen by October 23 at the latest.