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Presidential campaigns kick off in Tunisia

Voting in Tunisia’s presidential elections will take place on 15 September, with expectations of a second round

Ahram Weekly Editorial , Saturday 7 Sep 2019
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Tunisians will head to the polls on 15 September to elect their president for the next five years in the country’s second presidential elections since the 2011 uprising that unseated the country’s long-time autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and triggered the Arab Spring.

Twenty-six candidates are competing for the country’s top political job, with all eyes on four main contenders: Abdel-Fattah Mourou, 71, from the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, former defence minister Abdel-Krim Zbeidi, 69, former prime minister Youssef Chahed, 43, and TV magnate Nabil Karoui, 56.

In the absence of opinion polls, banned by Tunisia’s independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE), observers say it is difficult to assess the chances of the candidates but predict a second round will take place on 5 November since none of the contenders are expected to score a majority on 15 September.

The elections have been brought forward from November due to the death of former president Beji Caid Essebsi of the Nidaa Tounes Party at the age of 92 in July.

Campaigning began abroad on 31 August and started in Tunisia on 2 September. Televised presidential debates are expected on 8 and 10 September.

Despite Tunisia’s preservation of a democratic system since 2011, the country’s unstable political landscape is fraught with divisions within the two main parties regarding the decision to contest the presidential race and who to nominate.

Contrary to the 2014 elections, where competition was limited to Essebsi and former president Moncef Marzouki, the coming vote demonstrates how the political mood has changed in Tunisia over the past five years.

For Ennahda, the debate on running for the presidency has been controversial inside the party and has fallen foul of a secularist-Islamist divide despite a final decision to move beyond it.

This is the first time the Islamist Party will contest a set of presidential elections in Tunisia. Mourou, a lawyer and cofounder of Ennahda and its deputy leader, is one of the most acceptable faces of the party, especially with secularists.

Under Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution, parliament and the prime minister enjoy more powers than the president, and pundits say that Ennahda is far more interested in winning the next legislative elections.

“These elections are of particular importance for Ennahda,” said Party Secretary Rached Al-Ghannouchi as Mourou addressed party members at the launch of his campaign at the end of last week. 

“It is the second since the [2011] Revolution and the first for Ennahda. We bring to Tunisians the outcome of our experience in governance, where we have learned many important lessons that make us more qualified to embark on a new experience,” he said.

Al-Ghannouchi described Ennahda’s platform as socially and economically comprehensive.

When Mourou took the podium in his trademark traditional Tunisian costume, his speech was improvised. “Tunisia’s revolution wasn’t just a slogan, and today it is struggling to become a reality. We want a revolution against poverty, ignorance and corruption,” he said.

He shifted to Tunisia’s African identity and made no mention of its Arab dimension.    

On 1 September, the secularist Nidaa Tounes Party announced its official support for Zbeidi, following sharp disagreements between leaders divided between Zbeidi and Chahed. The latter resigned from Nidaa Tounes to form his own party, Tayha Tounes, earlier this year.

Zbeidi said he would amend the constitution to give the president more powers if he won the elections, intending to address what he described as the “unreasonable division” of power between the prime minister and head of state.

“Power cannot be shared,” he told the French news agency AFP.

Ennahda and civil society organisations in Tunisia oppose any such amendment and maintain that the new constitution needs more time to be tested and implemented before making further changes can be discussed. A constitutional court has yet to be created in the country.

Chahed, a former prime minister, launched his overseas campaign on Saturday in the French city of Lyons, casting himself as a human-rights defender.

Despite his arrest on 23 August for alleged money laundering, TV magnate Karoui is still legally allowed to run in the elections. He used his popular Nessma TV channel, banned from covering the elections, to launch high-profile charity campaigns.

The first day of campaigning was marked by a shootout between militants and Tunisian border guards near the border with Algeria. One guard and three militants were killed, according to Tunisian state TV.

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