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Upcoming presidential elections important test for fragmented Tunisia

On Monday 2 September candidates for the upcoming presidential elections began campaigning.
The presidential elections will take place on 15 September and are followed by parliamentary elections on 6 October. The upcoming polls are expected to bring a new generation of voters to the ballots who are fed up with corruption and flawed politics.

Diverse set of candidates
The final list announced by the electoral commission contained 26 presidential candidates who will compete in the elections on 15 September. It contains a wide range of candidates who are all trying to differentiate themselves to gain support. You can find the most important candidates below.

Youssef Chahed (Current Prime Minister)
Chahed has been prime minister since 2016 and is seen as one of the most important candidates.
He formed his own party after a dispute with the son of late President Beji Caid Essebi, called Tahya Tounes (Long Live Tunisia). Chahed delegated his authority to one of his ministers until 13 September to avoid accusations of using his post as an advantage. Chahed sees Zbidi as one his most serious rivals, Zbidi is gaining support from the traditional secularist base in Tunisia. Chahed promotes his image as capable leader who is focused on fighting corruption and preserving the sovereignty of Tunisia. Although popular, his involvement in the previous government could see Chahed loose a crucial amount of votes. He is criticized for his failure to revive the country’s economy and improve citizens’ living conditions.

Abdelkarim Zbidi (Former Minister of Defence)
Abdelkarim Zbidi is a former Minister of Defence who is supported by secularist parties like Nidaa Tounes and Afek Tounes. Resigned from his post in order to run for president after pressure from political parties, who wanted to ensure fair elections. His supporters perceive him as a statesman who is considered to be above party politics. Expected to preserve the legacy of late President Essebsi due to his strong personal connection with Essebsi. Zbidi is critical of the design of the political system in Tunisia. “The lack of efficiency in this hybrid system disrupts economic recovery and democratic transition,” Zbidi recently told Reuters news agency. If elected, the 69-year-old promised he will put forward a constitutional amendment that would shift more power to the president. Stating that the current “unreasonable” division of power is weakening the ability of the state. Currently the president is in control of the foreign and defense policy, while the prime minister is concerned with the domestic issues.

Nabil Karoui (Media tycoon)
Karoui is a media tycoon who owns Nesma media, he has used his media channel to promote his candidacy. Karoui founded the Khalil Tounes (Friend of Tunisia) foundation to fight poverty. His candidacy was endangered by a proposed amendment made by the parliament which banned candidates who benefited from charitable associations during the year before an election. But Essebsi passed away before he could sign the law, thus making it possible for Karoui to run. Still in Augustus Karoui was accused of money laundering and arrested by Tunisian authorities. He is currently campaigning from jail but if convicted he would be prohibited from becoming President. The current accusations and the proposed amendment are believed to be politically motivated and coming from the camp of Chahed. Karoui’s main theme in his campaign is to fight poverty, stating that the poorest part of the society has been abandoned by the government. On top of that, Karoui also seeks to reform the economy in order to achieve growth. Current polls put Karoui ahead of other candidates, his Qalb party is also leading the polls with regards to the parliamentary race.

Abdelfattah Mourou (‘Muslim democratic’ Ennahdha party)
Mourou is the vice president of Ennahdha and interim Speaker of the Parliament. With Ennahdha being the largest party  in parliament, its candidate can be seen as a very serious contender for the presidential elections. After a long struggle, the Ennahdha party managed to put forward one candidate, which can be seen as an advantage in comparison to secular candidates. Who are often dealing with multiple candidates fighting for voters in the same secular spectrum. Mourou is expected to get a lot of support from the conservative communities in the south of Tunisia. Recently he promised to maintain the achievements made in regards to women’s right. Even if Mourou reaches the second round it remains highly unlikely that he will win the election. Due to the secularist being expected to join forces in order to prevent an Islamist to become president.

Abir Moussi (Free Destourian Party)
One of the two female candidates running for President, she is a lawyer and supporter of former dictator Ben Ali. She was an active member of the regime of Ben Ali, continuing to deny the success of the 2011 revolution. Moussi remains critical of the current political system, promising to change the system when she wins the presidency. She is considered a populist, seeking votes from people who are longing back to Ben Ali’s regime. On top of that she is often causing stirs with anti-Islamist speeches: Moussi has stated that her top priority is to send Ennahdha members to prison. Claiming that they are tied to the caliphate and suspicious organizations. Her campaign is centered around security, aiming to make Tunisia a stabilizing factor in the fight against terrorism.

Hamma Hammami (Popular Front)
Hammami is the candidate for the leftist Popular Front coalition, which consists of nine political parties.
The focus of his campaign is on retaining the national sovereignty, he sees the IMF loans and the ALECA agreement as a serious infringement of Tunisia’s sovereignty. He has been vocal about his intention to suspend negotiations with the EU and start a diplomatic campaign to cancel the Tunisian debt. Furthermore, he aims to redistribute wealth and reduce corruption.

Elys Fakhfakh  (Ettakatol)
Fakhfakh is the candidate for the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties (Ettakatol). His candidacy is quite a surprise since party secretary-general Gargouri announced in march that his party was not planning on fielding a presidential candidate. Fakhfakh promises to complete the establishment of the Constitutional court and promote regional development by strengthen the local authorities reducing regional inequality and promoting investment are his main focus points. 

Moncef Marzouki (First Tunisian President)
Marzouki is a former human right activist who became Tunisia’s first president in 2011 and received 44,3 percent of the votes in the run-off election of 2014 against Essebsi. He represents the Another Tunisia Alliance which is coalition between the Al-Irada and Wafa movements. Marzouki often refers to the revolutionary duty of the Tunisian people, hoping to receive votes for his time as president during the start of the Tunisian democratic system. He promises to relaunch major projects in order to reduce poverty, return embezzled funds and use these to mobilize water resources and support poor regions. 


Anti-establishment candidates on the rise
These elections are characterized by the variety of candidates. The diverse electoral options are a consequence of the fragmented party system and the lack of trust among citizens regarding the political parties in general. Recent polls have shown that support for the democracy as preferred government type has declined from 71% in 2013 to 46% in 2018, according to Afrabarometer.

The ruling Nidaa Tounes party is fractured with many former members starting their own political parties and running in the presidential elections. A group of prominent secular figures signed a petition that urged the secularist candidates to rally behind one candidate, in order to prevent secularist votes to be split up between many candidates. The Ennahdha party is seen as the most stable political party but secularists are likely to form an alliance if Ennahdha’s candidate Mourou emerges as contender in the second round. The leftist camp is divided, with Hammami as the most prominent candidate, who is not expected to have a real chance at making it to the second round.

The established political candidates are facing the competition of newcomers like Karoui and Chahed. Many citizens fed up with the current political establishment, amid economic downfall and rising unemployment, are looking at anti-establishment candidates, like Karoui, hoping to change the current political system. The fact that presidential elections will be held before the parliamentary election will be beneficial for these candidates.

The elections on 15 September are not expected to bring forward a clear winner, in order to win a candidate has to receive 50 percent of the votes. A second run-off round between the two candidates with the most votes is then needed to determine who will be the new president. This run-off round will be held after the parliamentary elections on 6 October. The two leading candidates could use their success as a way to boost their parties performance in the parliamentary elections. Adding further importance to the elections of 15 September. Due to the sudden death of Essebsi the elections have been brought forward which caused candidates and the electoral body to be rushed into the elections. The large amount of candidates and the short campaigning time have caused many voters to be ill-informed about the program of the candidates.

Three TV debates, the first of their kind in Tunisia, are expected to inform citizens who are still unsure about who to vote for. They took place on 7, 8 and 9 September and aroused much interest among Tunisians. Being aired on eleven TV channels and some twenty radio stations, they were able to inform a large part of the country. Still political experts are not able to identify two clear contenders for the second round. Due to the fragmented secularist movement, the rise of political newcomers and the possibility of Ennahdha candidates to be barred by secularist from achieving a victory. This Sunday could be pivotal for the future of Tunisia, especially when Karoui succeeds in going to the second round. His imprisonment and possible convicting could be a real test for the legality of the young democratic system in Tunisia.  

Sources: TRT Arab Reform Conversation Reuters 1  Reuters 2  Aljazeera People Dispatch TAP 1 TAP 2 TAP 3