The democratic dilemma of the early Tunisian presidential elections

Nabil Baffoun, President of the Independent Higher Authority for Elections (ISIE), announces the results in the first round of Tunisia's presidential election in Tunis, Tunisia September 17, 2019. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Cataclysm, atypical, and rupture are a few words to describe the situation in Tunisia after the exit poll results in the first round of the early presidential elections organized on September 15, 2019. People expressed mixed feelings about the candidates’ performances, but also voiced serious concerns regarding the long-term political outcomes of the electoral process.

Tunisia remains a democratic island in the region since 2011. Both its neighbors and partners want to see this unique democratic experience lay down the “foundation for a more stable and prosperous country”, according to Daniel Twining president of the International Republican Institute; which regularly monitors and polls Tunisians.

According to Article 75 of the Tunisian 2014’s Constitution, “a second round shall be organized during the two weeks following the announcement of the definitive results of the first round. Only the two candidates having won the highest number of votes during the first round may stand for election in the second round.”

The Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) confirmed an unprecedented debate in the second round between Kaïs Saïed, a constitutional law lecturer, with 18.4 percent of the vote, and Nabil Karoui, a media mogul, with 15.6 percent, as the two candidates who came out on top in the first round of voting.

The official preliminary results given by the ISIE on September 17, 2019, show that voter turnout was around 49 percent out of seven million registered voters. However, this is 20 percent less than in 2014. Although several political and economic crises since 2011 have left a toll on the public, the primary reasons for voter abstention are more complex.

The date for the run-off has yet to be announced as six candidates filed appeals before the administrative court to annul the results obtained; in particular by Karoui and Mourou in the first round. Given the deadlines set by the electoral law, the second round must take place before October 13th.

Neither candidate Kaïs Saïed or Nabil Karoui have a political background, however, Karoui is more opportunistic. His campaign uses hid own TV media channel and a charitable NGO named after the death of his son “Khalil Tounes,” to promote his platform. He is also the candidate of a newly formed political party named ‘Heart of Tunisia.’ However, Karoui has not been able to run a legitimate campaign because he has been imprisoned—for weeks now—before the election campaign started. This is a major concern as a democratic electoral process should allow for a free and fair election campaign for all candidates.

Despite this, election day went by without any incidents. Polling took place in a peaceful and orderly environment. Both national and international observers reported the transparency and the integrity of the electoral contest. Despite a few loopholes in the legal system, some concerns regarding candidates’ level of media access, and the coverage of the electoral campaign; the election ran smoothly.

Nevertheless, the elections results reflect a huge gap between the winners and the losers. It shows discontent with the party system and lack of trust with politicians. Presidential candidate and interim speaker of parliament, Abdelfattah Mourou, from the Islamist party Ennahdha, did not make it to the top two spots. Despite his position in third with 12.9 percent of the votes he did not qualify to the second round.

Ennhadha is now healing its wounds after having lost an important part of its electoral reservoir. Voters who backed this party, seem to have punished them for having been in several coalition governments since 2011. Ennahdha’s loss can be attributed also to the party’s last minute decision to nominate Mourou as the first-ever candidate to a presidential election.

On the other hand, the centrist candidates, represented by the Prime Minister Youssef Chahed from Tahya Tounes political party and his Minister of Defense Abdelkrim Zbidi, who headed to the centrist modernist family too, were also punished by an anti-elitist electorate. They did not succeed in bringing together a moderate middle class electorate, which is the most important in the country. Zbidi got 10.73 percent of the votes, whereas Chahed obtained only 7.38 percent, and therefore lost the chance to have one of them qualify to the second round. They blame each other for this failure.

The results of the first round confirm, therefore, a final contest between two outsiders.

By this vote, Tunisians have rejected the two main political trends (Ennahdha and the secular parties), which governed the country for the last eight years. This suggests that Tunisians have rejected the political party system.

First, the reigning governing officials appear to have been completely disavowed by an exasperated electorate. Citizens are particularly at odds with a political class that embodies all the misfortunes and failures of Tunisia since its independence in 1956 until its democratic transition in 2011. The results of the election show a call for change, a rupture with a dominant status quo; it is a clear message to all the candidates who are part of the existing system that they must be part of that change or lose their seat.

Second, the results will likely show the end of the partnership government between the Ennhadha party and its allies from the modernist camp. A partnership between the late President Béji Caïd Essebessi and Ennhadha’s party leader Rached Ghannouchi began after the first general elections in 2014. Over the past five years, the alliance successfully stalled government action while alienating their base.

Third, of the over twenty-six candidates who were in the race, fourteen have obtained less than 5 percent of the scores. Most of them are from the traditional democratic and progressive elite who used to represent the modernist camp in the country. The elections results signify the public is standing against the political elite.

At the same time, the populist right parties together took almost 15 percent of the votes; among them people like Mraihi (6.6 per cent) and Makhlouf (4.3 per cent) who represent the “extreme” right, and Safi Saïd (7.1 per cent) who enjoy the endorsement and support of the People’s Movement. The populism is based on conservative values and nurtures a new form of segregation: the marginalized against the privileged.

However, the most important lesson from the preliminary results is the phenomenon of the anti-system vote that brought political newcomers Saïd and Karoui to a runoff.

Kais Saïd is running a simple campaign. Without a campaign team or strategy—he does no media, does not fundraise, or even showcase a political agenda—his platform is based on a normative discourse which is “I am not making promises, I am just listening.” His main motto is: “Power to the people,” which echoes that of the 2010 revolution.

Saïd does not belong to any political party and rather has a positivist conception of power. He is an atypical idealist popular in both the educated and public circles. His belief of government is focused on the rule of law; which is based on justice, equality, integrity, freedom of choice, and order. For an electorate who is disillusioned with corruption, clientelism, and inefficiency, these values signal a clear-cut departure with the current political party system. With his ideas on decentralization and popular governance, he might be seen as the cantor of “normative populism.” He is a candidate to beat as his number of followers continues to grow every day.

Whereas Nabil Karoui—currently detained in prison—is another form of a similar, but different kind of populism. He invested in the poor by feeding, clothing, and caring after the most vulnerable. He traveled across the country with his charity caravans, offering people warmth amidst the less forgiving economic and social environment. He believes it is the end of the current government era and time to topple the failing systems. He knows how relatable this rhetoric is among the disfranchised milieu and, therefore, connects with the people through his well-crafted speeches. His political party is even called the “Heart of Tunisia” This is also a strategy to reclaim the following of the Ennahdha party. Nevertheless, Nabil Karoui is facing serious accusations regarding money laundering and tax evasion.

For the people, voting for Saïd could make a big impact on their future, but he is an unknown entity. He does not speak to the local media, he is ambiguous about his platform because it seems to defend a conservative project, and he has no experience. Yet one is tempted to trust him as long as he clarifies his thinking on fundamental issues such as women’s’ rights, individual freedoms, foreign policy, and national security. Despite all these serious concerns, the public views him as trustworthy.

Instead, voting for Nabil Karoui is more problematic. He is anti-system, but has benefited from that same system. Most of his electorate voted for him for self-interests, or because they believed in his capacity to restore hope and wealth. However, the idea of him becoming president is worrisome as it gives him a legal cover to escape the serious criminal charges he is facing. If he is elected, he will enjoy immunity from lawsuits, which would place him above the law. His personal and political situation is really equivocal.

Either is likely to win the runoff. However, at the moment, the election rallies seem to support candidate Saïd. He seems to enjoy a sizable following, and would benefit from a fractured political environment. On the other hand, one should not discount attempts from the political elite to negotiate and make deals with Nabil Karoui in order for them to their positions in parliament after the legislative elections.

The results of this election will impact the upcoming legislative elections. On October 6, 2019, the same people will elect their 217 representatives to the parliament. Unless there is a shift in the current balance of powers or a political crash, the parliamentary elections may confirm two trends:

  • the anti-system vote – with parties like Nidaa Tounes, Tahya Tounes, and others with the populist movement;
  • the entry of new actors – the Assembly of People’s Representatives (ARP), such as “3ich Tounsi,” who believe that the current politicians cannot resolve current problems in purchasing power, security, unemployment, and housing.

The vote of the first round of the presidential election held on September 15, 2019 expressed a clear discontent towards government parties and the political class at large. Put another way, the political consequences of the elections will have an in impact on the political ties in the country. Democratic change goes hand in hand with changing leaders and methods.

There will be more losers than winners. For example, Ennhadha’s stakes in the upcoming legislative elections of October 6, 2019 are very high. Not only will it be a second serious test for the party to measure its political influence in a polarized party system, but also to measure the political leadership trust and image of its leader Rached Ghannouch who is also a candidate for the legislative elections.

Going against the current system has removed democracy from the ideological and political narrative and instead focused on a new type of order to first distinguish the ‘good’ from ‘corrupted’ people, and second to effectively separate populism and its political manifestations from the status quo.

International and domestic observers may than ask if it is a step forward or a step backward for democracy in Tunisia? The election results show that people are making serious decisions based on their perceptions and not necessarily on the level of their knowledge of the political candidates regarding the future of their country. The results of the first tour clearly paved the way for a strategic vote against impunity, corruption, and institutional deficit with the runoff between Saïd and Karaoui.

Certainly, the next legislative election on October 6 will add more to the new political reality. With no clear majority within the next parliament, the situation will be untenable over the next two to three years. Tunisia may become a political archipelago for lack of being an area of ​​stability and prosperity. Whatever happens in the next few days, the new elected leadership will face a fundamental choice: effectiveness of the political institutions vs. citizen participation.

Haykel Ben Mahfoudhis a senior non-resident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.