Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in Tunis on July 25, 2019, waves to supporters at an April gathering of his Nidaa Tounes party in the coastal city of Monastir. (Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Tunisia Sets Presidential Election Field

If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, a runoff will be no later than November 3

Tunisia’s electoral commission has approved 26 candidates, including two women, for the September 15 presidential vote while rejecting 71 other applicants. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, a runoff will be held no later than November 3.

The election was original set for November 17, but was moved up after Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi died in July. As a result, Tunisia will be holding its presidential election before its parliamentary one for the first time in the country’s history.

Tunisia is considered the sole Arab Spring success, being the only nation to emerge as a democracy from the series of uprisings against oppressive regimes that rocked the Middle East and North Africa beginning in 2011. The upcoming contest will be the country’s fifth overall election since its totalitarian government was ousted.

Experts have expressed concern that electing a new president before voting for parliament could endanger Tunisia’s democracy, saying this could lead to fewer viewpoints being represented in the legislature. This, in turn, could also threaten the legislative branch’s check on the executive.

“Given the power sharing efforts between Islamists and secularists, as demonstrated in recent years by [the moderate religious] Ennahda [Party] and the [secular liberal] Nidaa Tounes Party, such an electoral calendar shift could potentially spark a constitutional crisis, as the legislative election will not serve as a balancing weight,” Arnaud Kurze, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told The Media Line.

According to Sarah Yerkes, a fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East program, Tunisia has more than 220 political parties. A party needs to receive only three percent of the vote to win a seat in parliament.

Yerkes told The Media Line that because of Tunisia’s high rate of unemployment, “the biggest issue in the presidential election is likely to be the economy and who can deliver real positive change.”

Those considered frontrunners in the race are Nabil Karoui of the Nidaa Tounes Party, Abdelfattah Mourou of the Ennahda Party, and Abdelkarim Zbidi, the defense minister, who is running as an independent.

Supporters of Karoui note that he has achieved success in both business and the media, while critics point out that he has been charged with money laundering and is seen as divisive.

“[Karoui’s television show] has helped his visibility in Tunisian society, which he has sustained and exploited by delivering populist messages in public,” Kurze said.

Yerkes added that, “Karoui continues to do well in the polls and seems to be attractive because of his charitable work and name recognition.”

Mourou is the first candidate put forth by the Ennahda Party since the Arab Spring. He is known for his moderate positions and opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood.

“I think Mourou will do very well as Ennahda‘s first ever presidential candidate,” Yerkes contended.

She also said that Zbidi is someone to watch. “He is likely to fare well since he is running as an independent and has performed well as defense minister.” In this respect, Zbidi created a program to prepare Tunisia’s army to fight terrorism with the help of American forces.

Other leading candidates include Abir Moussi of the Free Destourian Party, which opposed the Arab Spring, and Mohamed Abbou of the Democratic Current Party, whose major issue is fighting corruption.

Tunisia’s Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, head of the Long Live Tunisia Party, is also running for president but, according to Kurze, he does not enjoy widespread support.

Additionally, the two women running are Abir Moussi and Selma Elloumi Rekik, who heads Tunisia’s Ministry of Tourism and Handicrafts. According to Kurze, 47 percent of regional leadership roles are held by women.

“Tunisia is one of the few countries to practice gender equality with regards to candidate lists,” Kurze said.  He qualified, however, that “studies have shown that men are more likely to know and interact with their local representatives.”

Kurze also cited a survey that showed only a 20 percent female participation rate in Tunisian elections. He nevertheless believes that the potential for women voters to determine the outcome of the election is significant, “if they participate.”

Most analysts agree that next month’s vote will be a crucial test for whether Tunisia can continue to be the sole Arab Spring success story.

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

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