Tunisia votes anti-establishment in presidential race

Wednesday 18 Sep 2019

Tunisians voted for a constitutional law expert and a jailed TV mogul in the first round of the country’s presidential elections this week in a slap in the face for the old political order

Tunisian Presidential candidates
File photo: This combination photo shows Nabil Karoui speaking to press after his trial in Tunis, Jan. 23, 2012, left, and Kais Saied speaking to the media in Tunis, Sept. 17, 2019. (AP)

By virtue of its widely accepted standing as the only democracy in the Arab world, the results of Tunisia’s second free-and-fair presidential elections since the overthrow of former president Zein Al-Abidine Ben Ali in the 2011 uprising were always likely to be unpredictable. But few expected the results that were delivered after Sunday’s vote in the elections’ first round.

Official results announced on Tuesday showed that 18.4 per cent of Tunisian voters cast their votes for independent constitutional law expert Kais Said, 61. Nabil Karoui, 56, an incarcerated TV mogul and businessman, came in second with 15.58 per cent.

The date of the run-offs has not yet been decided, but parliamentary elections are scheduled for 6 October.

Abdel-Fattah Mourou, vice-president of the Islamist Ennahda Party, came in third in Sunday’s polls with 12.88 per cent of the vote. Like Mourou, other political heavyweights who had been expected to make it through to the second round such as Defence Minister Abdel-Kerim Zbidi (10.7 per cent of the vote) and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (also 7.3 per cent), received resounding snubs from a disillusioned electorate.

The results were spelled out the day following the elections in the press headlines “the blow” and “a political earthquake.”

Said, a little-known professor of constitutional law with no political experience, kept a low profile during the campaign, and he was not expected to make it through to the run-offs by Tunisian commentators, who focused instead on Mourou, Zbidi, Chahed and Karoui.

Nicknamed “robocop” for his staccato speech, poise, controlled emotions and command of fusha (literary) Arabic, Said ran his campaign by relying entirely on volunteers. In a TV interview prior to the elections, he said he had collected the required 10,000 dinars to registrar as a candidate from his extended family while contributing only 50 dinars from his own pocket.

“That was what I could afford,” he told the TV host.

Said participated in the first televised election debates on 9 September when he spoke out against normalising relations with Israel and criticised the ineffectiveness of the Arab League. He said neighbouring Algeria would be the first country he would visit if he was elected.

Meanwhile, Karoui, who was not able to campaign due to his arrest on 23 August on money-laundering and tax-evasion charges, is a populist who defected from the secular and anti-Islamist Nedaa Tunis Party to form his own Qalb Tunis (Heart of Tunis) Party. Tunisia’s judiciary has refused to release him from prison three times, but his lawyers are attempting a fourth request.

Karoui, a controversial figure often referred to in the Western press as “Tunisia’s Berlusconi” in a reference to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, made his name through his TV channel Nesma, which he used to promote his political ambitions. By broadcasting the activities of his charity and projecting an image as an anti-establishment figure, despite his fondness for designer suits, Karoui saw his popularity soar within Tunisia’s poorer regions.

His party described his arrest as having been “politically motivated” and accused front-runner and fellow candidate Youssef Chahed, the country’s prime minister, of orchestrating the arrest.

Observers say that Karoui was able to use his arrest to present himself as a victim of the system. 

“The anti-system strategy has won,” Adil Brinsi, a member of Tunisia’s Independent Higher Authority for Elections (ISIE), told the French news agency AFP, adding that “it’s not finished yet. Mourou could very easily move from third to second place in front of Karoui.”

ISIE reported a low turnout in the elections at 45 per cent, down from the 64 per cent in the country’s first democratic elections in 2014 after the fall of the Ben Ali regime.

According to Sigma, an independent Tunisian polling centre, younger voters aged between 18 and 45 had voted for Said, while older age groups had opted for Karoui followed by Mourou and Zbidi.

More significantly, 40.8 per cent of those who voted for Karoui had never been to school, while over 20 per cent of those who voted for Said had received primary and secondary school education and 24.7 per cent had a university degree.

Although legally permitted to run in the elections, Karoui’s future remains unclear. If he is convicted before the run-offs it will mean that Mourou, who came third, will face Said. At the same time, it is becoming hard for the authorities to justify keeping him behind bars without a trial now that he has made it through to the elections’ second round.

Said’s anti-establishment views date back to 2011 when he called for a boycott of the country’s first elections after the popular protests that unseated Ben Ali. He said that the electoral law was designed by the Ben Ali regime to guarantee the continuation of the same political system and parties and that these had not participated in the revolution.

Tunisia, Said argued eight years ago, needed a more representative mechanism to manage the transitional period and one that came from below and involved elected local council members who had advanced to parliament. This would be instead of the direct election of the assembly’s members who had overseen the transitional period.

With very little known about Said, his 16 October 2011 speech is now being viewed as an insight into his political platform and his vision of decentralisation and greater popular representation.

Said also called for a boycott of the 2014 elections, which he said were a continuation of the old political system and the bankrupt old political parties. 

By making it through to the second round in the 2019 elections, Said’s views from 2011 appear to have been vindicated by Tunisia’s electorate voting against the same political establishment that he has boycotted over the past eight years.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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