The first multi-candidate presidential elections in Tunisia's history have occasioned a number of ironies. The first round, held on Sunday, established the 88-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi as the politician with the greatest influence in the country after the 14 January 2011 Revolution that was ignited and spearheaded by young people.
Constituting some 60 per cent of the population, the majority of this younger generation was born or opened their eyes to public affairs after Essebsi vanished from the political scene in 1991.
The irony acquires another dimension with regard to the older generations who still carry painful memories of the senility of former president Habib Bourguiba before he was ousted by Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, later himself ousted in the 2011 Revolution, in the so-called “medical coup” of 1987.
Those memories are filled with dozens of grim stories of how the institutions and resources of the state became the playgrounds for Bourguiba's entourage including his wife Wassila Ben Ammar and dozens of other chilling stories as to how political decisions fell prey to the fluctuating whims of a national leader in the grip of failing health.
This certainly adds to the drama of Essebsi's march to the threshold of the presidential office at an age several years beyond that at which Bourguiba was forced to step aside by Ben Ali 27 years ago. In words that must have sounded convincing to the majority of Tunisians, including Essebsi who was the Tunisian ambassador to Germany at the time, Ben Ali said that “national duty compels us, in the face of the advanced age and aggravated illness of the leader Bourguiba, to announce that, on the basis of a medical report, he has become incapable of undertaking the duties of the president of republic.”
To compound the irony, during the week of the first round of their presidential elections, Tunisians were also reading news of the deteriorating health of the president of neighbouring Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Essebsi's junior by 11 years.
Nevertheless, such ironies with their implicit cause for apprehension carried no weight in the Tunisian media which was filled with ardour for the chief of the Nidaa Tounes Party. Having recently won a parliamentary majority, this is now poised to appoint a prime minister to form a new government.
According to the election returns, about 38 per cent of those who went to the polls (3.1 million out of 3.3 million registered voters) cast their ballots for Essebsi, who stood the best chance of benefitting from the Bourguiba revival in Tunisia and the emotionally laden and paternalistic relationship between the leader and the people it evokes.
This would have been difficult to imagine in 21st-century Tunisia after the 2011 Revolution had it not been for the panic that has beset the intelligentsia, the middle classes and the inhabitants of the capital and coastal cities as a result of the mistakes of the so-called troika government led by the Islamist Ennahda Party and its ally interim president Moncef Marzouki.
There have also been Salafist muscle flexing and terrorist attacks in Tunisia over the past three years.
The number of votes garnered by Essebsi in the first round of the presidential elections was roughly the same as the number won by his party in the legislative elections in late October. The number of votes cast for his presidential rival (just over a million, or about 33 per cent) was also roughly equivalent to the number of votes cast for Ennahda in the legislative elections.
As for Marzouki's party, the Congress for the Republic, it only obtained 23,000 votes in those elections. This serves to underscore the sharp polarisation (Essebsi / Nidaa versus Marzouki / Ennahda) indicated by the presidential election results, even if the party leaders proclaimed their neutrality with respect to the candidates.
This polarisation may be another reason for the very low turnout among young people. Around 75 per cent of people aged 18 to 35 sat out the first round of the elections, and analysts believe that this figure will be higher in the runoff. To most young people, they suggest, the Essebsi-Marzouki polarisation, which the media have worked to entrench, boils down to a choice between “the return of the old order” and “those who betrayed the Revolution.”
The latter refers to the party to which the Tunisian electorate had handed the majority in the Constituent Assembly and the chance to govern, only for it to renege on its commitments to the Revolution's aims of social justice and an end to unemployment. This party, many Tunisians feel, squandered the opportunity to reform the security apparatus and promote transitional justice and paved the way for the return of figures from the former regime by scuttling the political isolation law.
Essebsi's prospects for a definitive win in the second round of the elections are not only shaped by expectations of a lower voter turnout than in the first round and a higher abstention rate among young people in particular.
He and his party hold other important cards. His party will be forming the next coalition government and hence it has the power to hold out promises of ministerial portfolios and other posts in the executive as well as positions at the head of parliamentary committees.
Such incentives could help to make up the minds of Slim Riahi, head of the Free Patriotic Union, who came in fifth in the presidential elections, and Kemal Morjane, the last foreign minister of the Ben Ali era, who came in sixth in the first round of the presidential polls.
It is difficult to predict how they might affect Hamma Hammami of the Popular Front, who came in third, as his supporters are divided over whether to boycott the elections or spoil their ballots in the second round, or to vote for Essebsi on the grounds that he is a bulwark against the Islamists and because the Popular Front holds Ennahda responsible for the assassinations of its leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi.
There is a large store of potential votes from those who cast their ballots for the candidates that ranked from third to sixth in the first round. These accounted for around 20 per cent of the votes cast, and only about a quarter of these (or five per cent of the vote cast in the first round) would vote for Marzouki in the second round.
That quarter could be derived from the votes won by Hechmi Hamdi (Current of Love Party) in his home province of Sidi Bouzeid in the interior of the country. Ennahda also still carries considerable weight in this part of the country, where there is a general aversion to Essebsi, seeing him as a symbol of the northern and coastal cities which received the bulk of the attention in the development plans of the Bourguiba era.
Surprises in Tunisia's first ever multi-candidate democratic presidential elections cannot be ruled out, as these are the first in which the results have not been fixed in advance. Nevertheless, Essebsi still stands the best chance of winning the presidential seat in the Carthage Palace.
*This story was previously published in Ahram Weekly