Tunisian voters shun establishment in favor of new faces

Tunisian voters shun establishment in favor of new faces

Nabil Karoui, left, and Kais Saied have qualified for the presidential run-off in Tunisia. (AP Photo)

Observers were aware that Tunisians were seriously disenchanted with their politicians, but the extent of their mistrust still came as a surprise. In presidential elections on Sunday, voters expressed their dissatisfaction with the leaders who have ruled them since 2011 by summarily rejecting all of them, amid a low voter turnout of just 49 percent.

Among 26 candidates, they opted for two who have never held public office. One, law professor Kais Saeed, who won 18 percent of the vote, is a true independent in that he does not even have a party. The other, Nabil Karoui, who earned 15 percent, set up his “Heart of Tunisia” party only in June and was in jail during the election campaign.

Tunisian democracy — the only success story of the co-called Arab Spring — has been subjected to particularly close scrutiny, given that it reflects the painful transition of a state from lengthy authoritarian rule to popular participation in the political order. The results so far have been mixed. Commentators have frequently noted the parlous state of the national economy and the security scenario, amid petty quarrels between their political leaders.

Economic conditions have worsened since the former autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who died on Thursday at the age of 83, was toppled in 2011. Growth, then at 5 percent, is now barely 2 percent; inflation, then about 4 percent, is now 7 percent; and unemployment, which triggered the Arab Spring protests, has gone from 12 percent to 15 percent.

The functioning of the democratic system itself has also come in for sharp criticism: Parliamentarians, it is noted, hardly maintain any contact with the electorate. Critics point out that the “coalition” of principal parties in Parliament gives them an unassailable majority, which has injected cronyism and corruption into the system and robbed the democratic order of debate and dynamism. Pessimistic observers even suggest that Tunisians are getting disillusioned with democracy and would happily trade off personal freedoms for economic improvement.

They have missed some positive features. Before the presidential elections, about 1.5 million new voters registered, bringing the electorate to 6.7 million. Again, a number of new parties and independent leaders entered the political arena, presenting new ideas relating to governance to the electorate and posing a real challenge to the jaded politicians who have held power over the previous eight years.

These fresh winds were apparent during the three presidential debates that preceded the vote. This was a novel experience for the electorate, nearly 4 million of whom saw at first hand the personality and thinking of their presidential aspirants.

Surprisingly, the principal candidates fared poorly. These included Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, Abdelkarim Zbidi, the former defense minister put up by Nidaa Tounes, and Ennahda’s candidate Abdelfattah Morou. Observers viewed the television exposure as a “game-changer” and polls even predicted that outsiders Karoui and Saeed would come out on top.

The 61-year-old Saeed appears to be a grassroots “populist” who is hostile to the elite leading the country. A constitutional law authority, he wishes to give power directly to the people — they would elect local councils that would in turn send members to Parliament; an arrangement that would do away with the present parliamentary system. But he is a social conservative, opposing gay rights and equal inheritance rights for men and women, bringing him close to the Ennahda value system.

Karoui, 55, is similar to Saeed in that he is a political outsider, but different in every other way. The owner of Nessma television (with Italian political veteran Silvio Berlusconi), he was an insider when he co-founded Nidaa Tounes with former President Beji Caid Essebsi, was a firm critic of Ennahda, and backed Essebsi in the 2014 elections.

As his political aspirations rose, he distanced himself from party politics and instead projected himself as the champion of the ignored and marginalized. Unlike Saeed, he seeks a strong state to provide for the needs of the “poor and forgotten.”

He was arrested in August this year for money laundering and tax evasion; thus, he neither campaigned nor joined the television debates. His supporters described him as Tunisia’s first “political prisoner” and even saw a similarity between his situation and that of Nelson Mandela.

The future of his candidature is not clear. If he is convicted before the run-off, he may have to give way to Morou, who got 12 percent of the vote.

A number of new parties and independent leaders entered the political arena, presenting new ideas relating to governance.

Talmiz Ahmad

Saeed and Karoui appeal to different constituencies — the former to the urban, educated and youth, the latter to small towns and rural and poor communities.

The country is now gearing up for parliamentary elections on Oct. 6, most probably before the presidential run-off. This will see 221 parties in the fray and numerous independent candidates. Since a party needs just 3 percent of the vote to get into Parliament, the new assembly could see several new groups and faces vying to form a coalition government.

Clearly, while Tunisians are dissatisfied with the old guard who took power after the Arab Spring, they would like to see the democratic system work. They will not accept the old authoritarian order, whatever the pessimists might believe.

  • Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.
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