Tunisia sees 26 candidates for presidential poll on Sunday

The vote is taking place because the country’s first democratically elected leader died in office in July. (AFP)
Updated 14 September 2019

Tunisia sees 26 candidates for presidential poll on Sunday

  • Accusations of smear campaigns and corruption are flying as Tunisia’s 7 million registered voters get ready to declare their choices

TUNIS: Tunisia is holding a cacophonous presidential election this weekend, with voters choosing among 26 candidates for a new leader who can secure the North African nation’s young democracy and tackle unemployment, corruption and the economic despair in its provinces.

Sunday’s first-round vote is only the second democratic presidential election that Tunisia has seen since its “jasmine revolution” brought down Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and triggered the Arab Spring uprisings across the region. While the Arab Spring led to deadly civil wars that still haunt countries such as Syria and Libya, it brought democracy to Tunisia.

The vote is taking place because the country’s first democratically elected leader died in office in July.

Accusations of smear campaigns and corruption are flying as Tunisia’s 7 million registered voters get ready to declare their choices. With so many candidates vying for the five-year term there’s no clear front-runner, although Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, jailed media magnate Nabil Karoui and Abdelfattah Mourou of the moderate Ennahda are getting particular attention.

“The young Tunisian democracy has, like a reed, folded without ever breaking,” said analyst Ahmed Chérif.

Still, the system remains fragile. In addition to Tunisia’s deep economic woes, security is a major concern amid extremist tensions along Tunisia’s borders with Algeria and Libya. A string of deadly attacks in 2015 notably hurt the country’s tourism sector, crucial to this small Mediterranean nation that lacks its neighbors’ oil wealth.

Given the plethora of presidential hopefuls, uncertainty dominates the election — which was thrown further into disarray by last month’s arrest of Karoui, considered a top contender.

He is charged with money laundering and tax evasion, but allowed to stay in the race as long as he hasn’t been convicted. He denies wrongdoing and accuses the prime minister of a smear campaign. On Thursday, he announced a hunger strike, demanding to be released for the election.

Karoui promises to fight poverty and launched a charity in 2016 in honor of his son, who was killed in a car accident, which collects donations for the poor through his Nessma TV channel. Critics accuse Karoui of exploiting the poor to earn their votes.

The campaign has included Tunisia’s first televised presidential debates, which have brought attention to lesser-known candidates. Still, only a minority have “profiles and skills that meet the criteria required,” said political scientist Salah Horchani.

Among them is Chahed, the 44-year-old outgoing prime minister who boasts of “saving the country from bankruptcy” during his three years as head of government, with economic indicators showing signs of improvement thanks to what he calls his “courageous reforms.”

His main competitor is none other than his own defense minister, Abdelkrim Zbidi, who calls himself independent but is supported by several centrist parties, including that of late President Beji Caid Essebsi.

The defense minister promises to “improve the morals of public life,” and accuses the prime minister of exploiting his office for electoral gains.

These two could be surprised, however, by Islamist candidate Mourou, vice president of the Ennahdha party, currently the largest single force in Tunisia’s Parliament.

Mourou, 71, said recently that he thought his age and health meant he could “no longer bring anything to Tunisia.” But he was convinced to run for president by Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi, who’s hoping Mourou can unify the party’s broad base. The party ran the government from 2011-2014 but its leadership led to an acute political crisis and rising fundamentalism.

Two women candidates say it’s time for a female president in a country that’s long had greater women’s rights than neighboring countries. Candidate Abir Moussi has seen a rise in support after her tough criticism of Tunisia’s Islamists.

Among the underdogs is former Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, appointed to the post thanks to a special agreement among four groups that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for saving Tunisia’s democracy amid its political crisis.

Results of the first round are expected Monday or Tuesday. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote on Sunday, the election goes to a second round that must be held no later than Nov. 3. The date of the runoff will be announced once the final first-round results are declared.

The new president’s success will depend on having support in Parliament — which is having its own election on Oct. 6.


Iran dissidents urge vote boycott as leaders eye high turnout

Updated 33 min 31 sec ago

Iran dissidents urge vote boycott as leaders eye high turnout

  • The country’s supreme leader has urged Iranians to “disappoint the enemy” by participating en masse in the vote on Friday
  • Opponents outside Iran argue that the government’s pressure on citizens to vote means that anyone who casts their ballot is effectively legitimising the system

PARIS: Opponents of Iran’s theocratic leadership are urging an outright boycott of its parliamentary elections, arguing that it is anything but democratic and that casting a ballot serves only to bolster the country’s Islamic rulers.
The country’s supreme leader has urged Iranians to “disappoint the enemy” by participating en masse in the vote on Friday, which coincides with one of the most testing periods for the country since the ousting of the pro-US shah in 1979.
“Participating in elections and voting... is a religious duty” that will strengthen the Islamic republic against the “propaganda” of its enemies, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Tuesday.
Analysts say Iran’s leaders want to see a high turnout to bolster their legitimacy as they battle an economic crisis spurred by crippling American sanctions imposed after Washington abandoned the 2015 deal curtailing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
The crisis prompted some of the most potent protests since the Revolution and the ferocious crackdown that followed.
The elections have been overshadowed by mass disqualifications of over 7,000 mainly moderate and reformist candidates by the Guardian Council oversight body.
The council threw out more candidates than it allowed in, including most incumbent MPs.
In a message from her jail cell, posted on her husband’s Facebook page, Iranian rights activist Narges Mohammadi said a boycott of the elections was the only peaceful means of protest left now that demonstrations are no longer being authorized.
“We need to rise up in the most civilized way and launch a strong boycott campaign to respond to the repressive policies of the government,” wrote Mohammadi, who is serving a 10-year sentence for “forming and managing an illegal group.”
Opponents outside Iran argue that the government’s pressure on citizens to vote means that anyone who casts their ballot is effectively legitimising the system.
Masih Alinejad, a former journalist who has left the country and leads a campaign against the enforced Islamic headscarf for women, has issued a viral video on social media warning that voting overlooks the memory of those killed in the protests.
While officials tell everyone to vote for the sake of the country, “the day after the election, it’s back to normal — the establishment claims the votes gave the Islamic regime legitimacy, and all promises of greater freedoms are forgotten,” she told AFP from New York.
“The candidates are pre-selected, no opposition views are tolerated and even the turnout is stage-managed,” she said, adding that instead of voting, people should demand a UN investigation into the November protests.
Amnesty International has confirmed the deaths of 300 people in the crackdown that followed those protests, and some estimates are far higher.
Iran rejects the reports but has yet to give its own figures.
Tehran’s admission that it accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner in January, killing all 176 on board, sparked more protests, at the very moment when the authorities were seeking to consolidate national sentiment following the US killing of top commander Qasem Soleimani.
Underlining the importance of mass participation, Khamenei said in a speech on February 5 that “the enemies who threaten the country and the nation are more afraid of popular support than our armaments.”
Turnout has varied widely in Iranian parliamentary elections over the past decades, but has generally been recorded at more than 50 percent and sometimes topping 60 percent — a figure the authorities will want to see repeated on Friday.
While the leadership should be able to count on a reasonable turnout from supporters of conservatives and in more rural areas, it is not certain how many will vote in bigger cities such as Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and even the holy city of Mashhad, said Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“The question mark is over the bigger urban cities,” she told AFP.
In any case, conservatives — or “principalists,” who are themselves split between different factions — will likely dominate the next parliament after the disqualification of reformists, which risks putting off many voters.
“The scale of disqualifications and what many see as a lack of competitive choice for the Iranian electorate may result in much lower voter participation in the urban areas relative to the last election,” Geranmayeh said.
On the other hand, “supporters of the principalists are expected to turn out and vote. We should not underestimate their numbers. They have also been galvanized by recent events including the killing of Soleimani,” she said.