Millions of Tunisians will be waiting for the second, decisive presidential election run-off in November between the top two vote winners, Kais Said and Nabil Karoui. More important parliamentary elections will also be held in early October, shaping the political scene in this country that many Arabs look at as a model for democratic transition following decades of dictatorship under late president Zein Al-Abidine Ben Ali.
The outcome of the next two rounds of elections is not a matter of concern for Tunisians alone. The relatively small Arab country has witnessed several years of upheaval since 2011, and witnessed the rise and fall of political Islamic groups, namely Ennahda Party that belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The outcome of the first round of presidential elections and the changes that the country witnessed in 2014 with the election of late president Beji Caid Essebsi all confirm that Tunisians are determined to build a modern, democratic state that gives priority to economic reform and improving the living standards of the people.
The fact that two political outsiders, Said and Karoui, will compete in the run-off vote to become Tunisia’s next president is an indication of how the majority of Tunisians continue to look for genuine change. For the majority of citizens in Arab countries, democracy and freedom of speech are not the only concerns. Economic improvement and better social services in the fields of education and healthcare are also top priorities.
As Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed — who came fifth in the first round of presidential elections — stated, economic opportunities must improve “if Tunisia is to join the club of strong democracy”.
In what was hailed as a sign of its successful democratic transition, Tunisia held its first-ever televised debate of presidential candidates in early September, confirming the progress that the country has made towards taking elections seriously, and grilling all candidates, including the prime minister and a former president.
But it has not all been smooth sailing. In recent years, the country has suffered attacks by terrorists and economic problems, with unemployment a persistent issue. With Libya next door, security remains a top priority, considering that many terrorists who use fractured Libya as a safe haven have managed to infiltrate into Tunisia to carry out horrific terrorist attacks.
In 2018, protesters took to the streets to oppose the government’s austerity measures, and the message that resonated through the results of recent presidential elections is that Tunisians do not only want the right to talk freely.
The result of the recent round of elections also marks a blow for the political establishment, including Prime Minister Chahed and former interim president Moncef Marzouki who both failed to progress to the run-off.
Reflecting substantial voter apathy nine years after the Tunisian Revolution, about 45 per cent of Tunisian voters cast ballots in the 15 September presidential election. There was a surge in voting towards the end of the day, but the turnout was still well below the 64 per cent recorded in the first round of the 2014 presidential election.
On the positive side, the head of the independent Tunisian electoral commission said the voting process went smoothly, a point echoed by the head of the European Union election monitoring team.
Candidates from more established parties, including the Islamist Ennahda Party, did not score so well, a harbinger of more problems for these parties as Tunisians struggle with high unemployment and inflation and as October legislative elections approach.
Looking ahead to the November run-off, Tunisia deserves praise for its steps towards democracy, but it will continue to struggle to revitalise the economy, lower inflation and combat unemployment. These are not Tunisian concerns alone, but rather a matter of concern for all Arab countries that have witnessed similar political changes recently. Therefore, the outcome of both the upcoming parliamentary elections and the second round of presidential vote will be watched closely by many in the Middle East and across Europe.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.