Tunisian Politics Splinters as Presidential Election Approaches

A wide range of candidates reflects the country’s increasingly fluid political situation as it tries to consolidate the democratic gains of 2011.

Expert comment
Published 20 August 2019 3 minute READ

Dr Laryssa Chomiak

Former Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

The funerary procession of late Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi on 27 July. Photo: Getty Images.

The funerary procession of late Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi on 27 July. Photo: Getty Images.

After close to 100 candidate applications, Tunisia’s presidential election on 15 September will feature 27 confirmed candidates, reflecting the country’s fluid political situation and an ongoing split between traditional parties and alliances and enduring anti-establishment populism. The election has been moved up from its originally scheduled November date following the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi on 25 July.

Since the 2011 revolution, the Tunisian political landscape has shifted significantly as electoral coalitions have been made and unmade, and as established political parties have fractured into smaller parties or collapsed amid leadership disagreements. In this context, presidential candidates reflect less party platforms and affiliation and more the ambitions of self-styled charismatic figures.

The most recent published round of Arab Barometer surveys (2016) reveals diminishing trust in the political process and institutions. For example, 65% of Tunisians have low or no trust at all in the government, 57% have little or no trust in the legal system, and 72% have little or no trust in parliament. At the same time, the surveys show an increasing trust in security institutions: 69% of Tunisians have a great deal or quite a lot of trust in the police; 93% of Tunisians have a great deal of trust in the army.

These survey results – indicative but not conclusive – correlate with a massive rise in contentious politics. The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights has recorded well over 10000 protests, strikes and other forms of collective and individual political action annually. Disillusionment among Tunisian citizens is marked most profoundly by social and economic grievances. These have translated into distrust of political institutions and notions that the new political establishment is not concerned with the very issues that drive citizens to take to the streets rather than to the polls.

Range of candidates

Unsurprisingly then, neither of the top two candidates in recent polls come from political parties currently represented in the legislature. The current front runner, despite accusations of tax evasion, is Nabil Karoui, an established business and media mogul. He is followed by an unaffiliated constitutional law expert, Kais Saied.

Another rising candidate is the current minister of defence, Abdelkarim Zbidi. A former Ben Ali-era minister, Zbidi is credited with maintaining stability during Essebsi’s final illness – a period that included two small-scale suicide bombings in the capital – and in the weeks that followed the president’s death. While announcing his candidacy as an independent, he is backed by one of Tunisia’s most dominant parties, Nidaa Tounes, which was unable to nominate its own candidate.

Nidaa Tounes, established by the late Essebsi, previously held a majority in the national assembly until internal dissension resulted in party defections and the creation of splinter parties such as Tahya Tounes, led by current Prime Minister Youssef Chahed. Both Chahed and former prime minister Mehdi Jomaa are competing along liberal democratic lines by rooting their campaigns in technocratic expertise and political know-how.

Tensions have also beset Ennahdha, the Muslim democratic party, which finally announced the current interim speaker of parliament, Abdelfattah Mourou, as its first ever presidential candidate. Ennahdha won Tunisia’s first contested elections in 2011 and remained perhaps the most stable political player by creating coalitions across ideologies and harnessing strong local support.

Other contenders include a prominent female candidate, Abir Moussi, who has gradually gained support because of her hardline anti-Islamist rhetoric and appeals to Tunisians nostalgic for the dictatorship of Ben Ali.

On the left-leaning social democratic front are Mohamed Abbou and Moncef Marzouki. Abbou is the founder of the Attayar Party, which has made gains, especially in the centre and south of the country, among young Tunisians looking for a more radical alternative to the status quo based on political equality and just distribution of resources. Marzouki, who served as president following the 2011 revolution, is seeking to revive his political fortunes following his defeat to Essebsi in 2014.

Political trends

The socioeconomic conditions in Tunisia are ripe for the rise of candidates and political entrepreneurs that represent, however distant from lived realities, a shift away from the status quo. This trend, while not influenced by the rise of the right-wing populism in the West, is certainly taking hold.

This desire for anti-establishment politics is coupled with a heavy reliance on social media for news in Tunisia. By 2012, over 60 percent of Tunisians relied on Facebook rather than the traditional media for their daily news. Moreover, Essebsi’s death has reignited fond remembrances of an earlier political era with Minister of Defence Zbidi riding this growing wave of nostalgia.

In effect, the upcoming presidential and legislative campaigns will likely be defined by three political trends: (1) a version of politics-as-is, one shaped by the cross-ideological coalitions that have existed since 2011 as well as a strong showing by Ennahda; (2) a reactionary political nostalgia shaped by a desire for competent technocracy, which is represented by the candidacy of the current minister of defence and the rise of younger liberal candidates; and (3) the growing support for anti-establishment candidates that seek a real rupture with the modern political history of Tunisia.

The biggest question hanging over these elections, however, is a large swing population composed of those Tunisians who have opted for street politics over electoral politics in recent years, as well as 1.5 million newly registered voters whose allegiances are up for grabs. In this context, a surprise win by anti-establishment forces would hardly represent coherent and widespread support for an alternative politics. It would instead represent the general political and economic hopelessness many Tunisians feel.