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Tunisian elections: six lessons from the first round

By Frida Dahmani, in Tunis
Posted on Tuesday, 17 September 2019 14:52

The front page of a Tunisian newspaper, the day after the presidential election which put Kaïs Saïed and Nabil Karoui in the lead © Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP/SIPA

The second round of the Tunisian presidential election looks set to pit Kaïs Saïed against Nabil Karoui – a dramatic twist that demonstrates the abject failures of the outgoing executive.

If there is only one date to remember other than the fall of the Ben Ali regime on 14 January 2011, it is the first round of the presidential election on 15 September 2019. Preliminary results show the final duel, not yet fixed, will be between Kaïs Saïed and Nabil Karoui. It is a huge blow for the political establishment, which had not reckoned on the emergence of these two outsiders, even though opinion polls had shown support for them since January 2019.

The victory of two “anti-establishment” candidates going through to the second round is symptomatic of the failure of a broken government and highlights the gap between politicians and citizens.

A political tsunami shattering all expectations and forecasts, it means the parties will have to quickly adapt to this new situation before the legislative elections on 6 October.

  • Interspersed between the two rounds of the presidential election, they appear to be part of the same process and have taken on the sheen of an additional – and unprecedented – round in the race for Carthage.

The politicians have been warned: by sanctioning the political class that has emerged since 2011 and the one that preceded it, Tunisians staged a peaceful revolution via the polls on 15 September. It will be difficult for the parties to survive this “populist” (as they call it) tendency, unless they make radical changes. These are the six lessons to be learnt:

1) Strong abstention, the result of rejection and weariness

In a polling station during the presidential elections in Tunisia, on Sunday, September 15, 2019. Mosa’ab Elshamy/AP/SIPA

54.9% of the electorate did not go to the polls – compared to 37.1% for the first round of the 2014 presidential election. However, with 26 candidates, there was no lack of choice.

This abstention, despite the registration of 1.5 million new voters, expresses first of all a rejection of policies and of the current political class. It is also a symptom of fatigue, for Tunisians are more concerned about their purchasing power and the consequences of the economic crisis than about partisan disputes.

The official campaign, which began on 2 September but had been launched informally for many months, bypassed social and economic problems. “How to lower the price of a two-dinar kilo of potatoes is more important than the abstract policies that candidates talk about,” explains an activist from the El Karama coalition.

The extent of this sanction might have been less if the change in the electoral calendar had been accompanied by a campaign to support the vote carried out by the Instance indépendante supérieure des élections (ISIE).

Another explanation is that some voters reserve their votes for the second round. However, if this score is repeated for the legislative elections and the second round of the presidential election, the next term will begin with instability due to elected leaders not fully representing the population.

2) Who is voting for Kaïs Saïed and Nabil Karoui?

Independent candidate Kaïs Saïed kissing the Tunisian flag at his campaign headquarters on Sunday, September 15, 2019 in Tunis. Camille Lafrance for JA.

For more than two years the top two candidates in the preliminary results have focused on appealing to marginalised citizens. They have obviously reaped what they sowed.

Lawyer Kaïs Saïed has played the youth card, often giving talks to young people on the constitution and the changes he intends to make to the regime. According to figures from an exit poll conducted by Sigma Conseil, 24.7% of his voters come from the most educated fringe, and 20.6% have a high school education.

Nabil Karoui, on the other hand, wins 29.6% of the votes among those with primary education and is a hit with women over 40 from poor backgrounds, with 30% of the votes, according to the same exit poll. This population has been his main target, particularly through the humanitarian aid provided by the association Khalil Tounes.

Unlike the 2014 elections, the female electorate – which ensured the success of Béji Caïd Essebsi with more than one million votes – abstained strongly in the 2019 election.

3) Disillusion for the Ben Ali supporter Abir Moussi

Abir Moussi at her office, in the Montplaisir district of Tunis. Ons Abid for GJA

Since 2016, Abir Moussi, president of the Parti Destourien Libre (PDL), has been preparing for the race for Carthage. She campaigned heavily for several months and seemed to be able to count on the vote of those who were nostalgic for the old system, of whom she claims to be the representative. She also intended to capitalise on her hostility towards Islamists.

But this lawyer and former deputy secretary general for women in Ben Ali’s party, the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD), finally obtained only 5.1% of the votes; well below the score she could expect given her supposed popularity.

Her disillusion is all the greater as her victory would have been a first in the Arab world. But, politics aside, the glass ceiling appears to be still in place. “In the polling booth, we remember that she is not a man,” says Faouzi, a doctor who supported the candidate based on her promise of a return to respect for law and order.

4) A blow for Ennahdha

Abdelfattah Mourou, Ennahda’s candidate, puts his ballot in the ballot box in front of the cameras. Mosa’ab Elshamy/AP/SIPA

With 11% of the votes – according to Sigma Conseil’s exit poll – Abdelfattah Mourou takes third place on a podium where there are only two winners. But the 4.5 point gap with Nabil Karoui leaves no doubt about the defeat of the Ennahdha party candidate. It is a slap in the face for the “Muslim-Democratic” formation which has never before tried to promote its own candidate in Carthage.

This failure revives old internal wounds in the party, whose president, Rached Ghannouchi, is being blamed for having wanted to impose an external challenger rather than promote a foal from his own stable. The post-mortem of this collapse by the party that had been ubiquitous since 2011 is sure to figure highly at the next Ennahdha Congress, which should be held in October 2020.

The forthcoming legislative elections will truly show the extent of Ennahdha’s fall. In eight years and four elections, it has lost a total of 1.5 million votes. The country’s strongest party will have to review its strategy of alliance and consensus, especially since the parliamentary regime it has imposed is severely criticised for the immobility it has created.

5) Youssef Chahed, the big loser

Yousseh Chahed at the polling station in La Marsa, near Tunis, on Sunday, September 15, 2019. Riadh Dridi/AP/SIPA

When he took office three years ago, Youssef Chahed enjoyed a great deal of sympathy, which he squandered as the cost of living rose, the general economic and social situation deteriorated and promises were broken. However, the outgoing head of government did not see anything coming, as he was so sure of his victory.

“He made his campaign an American-style show, with the complicity of the media in his pay, without an ounce of humility or listening,” notes a resident of Sousse who blames him for having positioned himself as “a victim of his predecessors, of the economic situation, of the media and of his rivals”.

As the weeks went by, Chahed’s practices and methods were increasingly criticised, to the point that some equated his possible victory with the advent of a new dictatorship.

For many observers, Chahed also did not give himself the time necessary for real political ripening and seemed to interact with the government as if it were a game.

Though a major loser in this first round – which did not prevent him from returning to his position in the government after entrusting the interim position to a member of his government during the election campaign –, this crushing defeat promises him a possible return to difficult politics.

6) Tahya Tounes’s future in the balance

Head of Government Youssef Chahed, speaking at the founding congress in Tahya Tounes, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. Ons Abid for JA.

The collapse of Chahed, who is also its president, calls into question the very future of Tahya Tounes. The party, created from a parliamentary group of dissidents from other parties, had a say in the Assembly and was able to use Ennahdha’s support to “preserve government stability”. But in the legislative elections, Tahya Tounes will have difficulty getting rid of the enmities generated by its leader.

“They confuse a group of buddies and boys band with the activities of a party,” says Amar, a voter who was initially attracted by the formation’s rigour when it was launched, but who left following a disagreement on the legislative lists. “It was just a front to work for them to further each other’s interests,” he continues.

For this election, Tahya Tounes will have to lower its ambitions. In order to survive it must learn to deal with other political currents or risk of being swept away by the fickleness of political staff.


This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.

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