A supporter of Tunisia's Ennahdha Party puts up a poster in Tunis on September 1, a day before campaigning was to start for the country’s presidential election. (Khaled Nasraoui/picture alliance via Getty Images)

‘Semifinal’ Presidential Contest Kicks off Tunisia’s Election Palooza

Exit polls point to final round between law professor and jailed media magnate

According to exit polls from Sunday’s Tunisian presidential, independent Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui of the secular liberal Nidaa Tounes (“Call of Tunisia”) party are headed to a decisive second round no later than October 23.

Sunday’s vote was the first of three electoral contests − two presidential votes bookending an October 6 legislative election − that the nation will hold within a month and a half. With Saied receiving 19.5 percent and Karoui 15.5 percent of the vote in a crowded field of 24, a second presidential round between the top two contenders is set, as no candidate received at least 50 percent of the support in the first round.

Karoui, one of the frontrunners coming into the vote, was able to promote himself to the electorate as a populist on his own television station prior to his incarceration for a money laundering scheme.

If Karoui wins, said Aymen Zaghdoudi, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Carthage in Tunis, the law provides for him to leave prison to serve as president but to go back to jail after his five-year term is over.

“I hope he will not win, because it would be a shame for a very young democratic transition in Tunisia to face this kind of thing,” Zaghdoudi said.

Saied’s first place showing surprised many; his grassroots approach and canvassing effort appear to have earned him the top slot.

In third place with 11 percent was Abdelfattah Mourou from the religious Ennahda (“Renaissance”) party, which for the first time since the Arab Spring had a candidate run in the presidential vote. His candidacy has generated debate within Tunisian society about what kind of future they want for their country.

“Some people say that as long as that party is working in a legal way under the constitution and respects individual freedoms and the state, they have no problem with it being in the government,” Zaghdoudi said. “The other half fears that the Islamic party has a connection to… the Muslim Brotherhood… and could be a real danger to the Tunisian people [if it gains more power].”

Independent Abdelkarim Zbidi, a former defense minister, placed fourth with 9.4 percent of the vote. He is credited for much of the success of the Tunisian army’s counter-terrorism efforts, conducted with US assistance.

Many Islamic State (ISIS) fighters came from Tunisia and the country is grappling with what to do with citizens who left to join the caliphate.

Zaghdoudi explained that the instability during the Arab Spring made the country a hotbed for ISIS recruiters, who went to mosques encouraging young men to fight on behalf of the group in Iraq and Syria. In 2013, the new Tunisian government started clamping down on this rhetoric and made it more difficult for extremist groups to meet with people, but by this time, many Tunisians had already joined the terrorist organization.

We are suffering from these [former ISIS fighters],” Zaghdoudi said. “We tried to find a way to punish them through prison, but after they get out in 10-20 years, we have to integrate them into society and [make sure] they are no longer a threat to the Tunisian people.”

The fifth and sixth placed candidates in the exit polls were incumbent prime minister Youssef Chahed of the Long Live Tunisia party and journalist Ahmed Safi Saïd, an independent, with 7.5 and 7.4 percent of the support, respectively.

While Mohamed Abbou of the Democratic Current party did not score high in the exit polls, his push for a more transparent political system touched upon corruption, a major problem in Tunisia and an oft discussed topic among voters.

Dr. Arnaud Kurze, a Woodrow Wilson Center Global Fellow and assistant professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, told The Media Line: “As the issue of corruption has been a political hot button in Tunisia, Abbou’s campaign against ‘dirty money’ has steadily maintained traction over the course of the race….”

Abbou supporter Fedi Abdelhamid Kantaoui, a culture studies master’s student in Sousse, Tunisia, told The Media Line: “Corruption is the main issue in Tunisia at the moment… [wealthy] businessmen [are willing to act unethically to] control everything, and politics and money are mixed, which can be a threat to the Tunisian democratic dream.”

Addressing Tunisia’s economic crisis is also a top issue. High school student Esra Hagi, 18, is also a fan of Abbou. She feels he has a grasp on the economic crisis plaguing Tunisia, which is especially felt in the interior of the country. This area suffers from a lack of the investment that the more prosperous cities on the coast enjoy. “I really want [the government] to stop neglecting interior provinces.… [Abbou is] from an interior province that is not close to the sea like Sousse is…,” Hagi told The Media Line. “We should all be equal.”

For Zbidi voter Soumaya Garrouch, a politician and civil society activist who lives in Sousse, personal safety and the vitality of Tunisia’s democracy are the most important issues. “[I want] the next president to have the characteristics of a statesman: a man who respects his people, is politically and diplomatically sophisticated and believes in democracy,” she told The Media Line.

Tunisia’s electoral process in the next month and a half will be a major accomplishment for a country which has held four elections since the Arab Spring, a chain of uprisings against dictators across the Middle East and North Africa that began in 2011. It is the only country to emerge from the unrest with a representative government, and all eyes are on Tunisia as the young democracy’s strength is put to the test while the populace exercises its civic duty.

The implications for the region are significant. The Wilson Center’s Kurze said: “The campaign debates − the likes of which have not been seen anywhere else in the Arab world − for which Tunisians were able to bring extremely different candidates together and hold live-streamed discussions, are an illustration of democracy in action.”

The Tunisian political system faces potential gridlock due to the structure of the elections. The University of Carthage’s Zaghdoudi said that holding the second round of the presidential elections after the legislative election might reduce the likelihood of political parties compromising, as they would be unable to negotiate any governance deals until they know who the president would be.

“It would be better to have all the presidential elections at once and then go to the legislative election, or the opposite,” he said.

As for US-Tunisia relations, Zaghdoudi said that Tunisia’s policy that America was a much-needed ally in forging a democracy would go unchanged regardless of who became president. He said, however, that US policy might change if the Islamist candidate Mourou of Ennahda were elected.

“At the moment [President] Donald Trump is adopting a policy against political Islam and such kinds of parties in the region,” Zaghdoudi said. The American president has already significantly reduced the level of financial assistance allotted to Tunis.

The Wilson Center’s Kurze told The Media Line that “the stakes, for both countries, are high and the partnership and support is mutually beneficial.

“Tunisia is an important ally in fighting global terrorism, particularly with the instability across Tunisian eastern border in Libya,” Kurze said.

 (Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies Program)

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