It is hard to predict the outcome of Tunisia’s presidential election, whose first round takes place on 15 September. From one perspective, this is a good thing – an encouraging sign of how much Tunisia’s democratic transition has succeeded. After all, a genuinely open election remains a rarity in the Arab world. But the unpredictable nature of the presidential contest also testifies to a more troubling aspect of Tunisia’s current situation: the political landscape is fragmented and the Tunisian public appears to be alienated from the major political parties, if not from the political class as a whole.
Tunisia’s political system, as established in the post-revolutionary constitution of 2014, divides power between the country’s president (who is responsible for foreign policy, defence, and national security) and the prime minister (who leads the government and oversees domestic policy). On paper, the prime minister has greater power – but many Tunisians still regard the presidency as the more high-profile position. The authorities originally planned to hold the presidential contest after a parliamentary election scheduled for October this year. But the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi in July forced them to reschedule the first round of the vote, thereby increasing its significance. Assuming no candidate wins a majority in this round, there will be a run-off between the two leading contenders later in the autumn.
The presidential race features no fewer than 26 candidates, including most of Tunisia’s best-known politicians. Among those competing to lead the country are the incumbent prime minister, Youssef Chahed (who has temporarily handed over his responsibilities to a colleague), and two former prime ministers, as well former president Moncef Marzouki and the current defence minister Abdelkarim Zbidi. In another sign of the importance of this election, the Ennahda party (Tunisia’s long-time Islamist movement, which now presents itself as a political party with a Muslim point of reference) is also fielding a candidate – something it avoided in Tunisia’s previous presidential election, to minimise the risk of a political backlash.
For most of the eight years since the revolution, Tunisian politics has been organised around two large blocs: one centred on the Ennahda party, and one on the modernist-secular Nidaa Tounes party, which Beji Caid Essebsi founded to constrain Ennahda’s influence. Originally opposed to each other, these blocs reached a consensus agreement after the 2014 election and have participated in a coalition government for much of the past five years. The 2019 presidential election marks the end of a political system structured primarily around identity questions and an Islamist-secular divide. The anti-Islamist bloc has broken up, Ennahda has evolved, and, most of all, a new set of questions have forced themselves – with growing insistence – onto the political agenda.
The defining issue of this year’s election is whether the Tunisian state can meet the social and economic needs of its people. The revolution of 2011 led to a genuinely competitive political system but has not delivered any democratic dividend to Tunisia’s citizens. Unemployment has risen (particularly among young people), living standards have suffered as Tunisia tries to rein in its public spending to fulfil an International Monetary Fund loan programme, and disparities between the prosperous coastal region and the deprived interior remain acute. The campaign platforms that the leading candidates have adopted highlight their differing responses to Tunisia’s precarious economic situation.
Unsurprisingly, the nearest thing to a continuity candidate is Chahed. He emerged from Nidaa Tounes but, having parted ways with it after a clash with Essebsi, now leads his own political party. Chahed has adopted a largely technocratic programme, stressing the importance of economic reform and the fight against corruption (although his critics accuse him of pursuing this in a very selective way). He has emphasised the importance of increasing trade between North African countries and called for the European Union to increase its support to Tunisia. Initially popular as prime minister because of his anti-corruption drive, Chahed may suffer in this election because he embodies a government and a political system that has not succeeded in redressing Tunisia’s socio-economic problems.
Chahed’s main challenger from the modernist-secularist branch of politics is likely to be the defence minister, Abdelkarim Zbidi. Zbidi has emerged as the favourite candidate of supporters of the late Essebsi – although he claims to be independent of any political party. Like Essebsi, Zbidi believes that Tunisia’s mixed parliamentary-presidential constitution does not provide a foundation for the kind of strong leadership that is necessary to overcome Tunisia’s problems. He has called for a referendum to amend the constitution. Zbidi is not alone in this ambition: other candidates have explicitly campaigned to increase the powers of the presidency. Among them is Abir Moussi, one of the few women running, who is outspokenly nostalgic about the ancien régime of deposed strongman Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.
Ennahda’s candidate for president is Abdelfattah Mourou – one of the party’s founders, but not its most prominent figure. Ennahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, is the most high-profile Tunisian politician to sit out the presidential campaign. He will instead run in the legislative election in October, and may seek a position in government or as the speaker of parliament. Mourou is an Ennahda reformist who would like the party to move even further away from its Islamist roots and become simply a conservative party.
Ennahda remains the best-organised party nationally, but it may lose some members of its previous coalition as it shifts its attention to social and economic issues. The party takes a somewhat free-market approach to economics (it favours reducing the state’s share of the economy and cutting red tape). Meanwhile, presidential candidates from left-wing and social democratic parties have put forward alternative economic agendas.
The strongest challenge to Mourou and Ennahda’s base of disadvantaged voters is likely to come from two candidates who have emerged from outside traditional party structures and are running strongly populist campaigns. The man who has done most to shake up Tunisian politics this year is Nabil Karoui, a businessman who founded a popular independent television station and is often described as “Tunisia’s Berlusconi”. Karoui has used his wealth to launch a heavily publicised campaign of private philanthropy in Tunisia’s disadvantaged regions. Last month, Karoui was arrested on charges of money laundering and tax evasion, but he remains a candidate while in prison awaiting trial. He consistently led opinion polls in the period before the campaign officially began.
Another political maverick is conservative law professor Kaïs Saïed, who has called for the reinstatement of the death penalty and for a radical revision of the Tunisian constitution to devolve various powers to regional governments. Saïed has also adopted a hostile attitude towards outside interference in Tunisia, describing the promotion of homosexuality as a foreign plot. He has also done well in opinion polls, indicating the extent of public dissatisfaction with mainstream political parties.
In one way, it is fitting that the presidential election has assumed such prominence this year, despite the limited powers of the president. With the exception of Ennahda, Tunisian politics remains heavily focused on the personalities of individuals rather than the political agendas of parties. Many parties have overlapping policy positions but revolve around a single leader. Yet the government that emerges from the parliamentary election will need to define and carry out a credible, effective social and economic programme that transcends the egos of those involved. Its failure to do so could radically reshape Tunisian politics for years to come.
A version of this article was published by the European Council on Foreign Relations. This commentary represents only the views of its author.