Tunisia makes history again with first free presidential poll
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Tunisia headed to polls Sunday in the country’s first free presidential poll, as the birthplace of the “Arab Spring” made history again. But the resurgence of Islamist militancy and the return of old regime figures make for a fragile success story.
More than three years after the Arab uprisings, as political hopes across the region have largely sunk into despair, Tunisia is bucking the trend yet again as the country goes to the polls in a historic presidential election.
Sunday’s presidential election caps a transition process that has, at times, been difficult, but has held together for most, making Tunisia an exception among post-Arab Spring countries.
In January 2014, the small North African nation adopted a new constitution following heated political debates and campaigns that led the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly to make several concessions, including dropping references to Islamic law.
The constitution, described as one of the most progressive in the Arab world, paved the way for parliamentary elections on October 26, which were widely deemed to be free and fair.
Tunisian voters delivered a rebuke to the ruling Islamist Ennahda party in last month’s parliamentary elections, with the secular Nidaa Tounes (literally “Tunisia’s Call”) winning 86 seats against Ennahda’s 69 in the 217-seat chamber.
Ennahda conceded defeat before the final results were announced in what party leader Rachid Ghannouchi called a “festive” atmosphere. In a New York Times column last week, Ghannouchi noted that his party’s bowing out of power was “a testament to our belief that this was nonetheless a victory for Tunisian democracy”.
Now, the cradle of the Arab Spring is once again being put to the democratic test as millions of Tunisians vote for a president from a field of 22 candidates (after five candidates withdrew from the race) including one female hopeful.
“People at the polls have been telling us how proud they are at taking part in this historic election,” said FRANCE 24’s Chris Moore, reporting from Tunis.
Moore, however, remarked that turnout seemed to be markedly lower than in last month’s parliamentary polls.
Ennahda has chosen not to field nor back a presidential candidate, “because we judged that this abstention would help maintain the equilibrium necessary for the healthy development of our democracy,” noted Ghannouchi.
But Tunisian democracy faces many challenges in a very difficult neighbourhood. With a population of just 11 million people, the country has the dubious distinction of being the largest source of foreign jihadist fighters joining the ranks of the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq, according to government and independent monitoring figures. The unemployment rate also hovers around 16 percent, with youth joblessness almost double that and rising even higher in rural areas.
These are just some of the issues the new president will have to tackle when he (and it almost certainly will be a “he”) takes power.
Exploiting old regime fears
Leading the opinion polls in the run-up to Sunday’s vote were two seasoned Tunisian politicians.
The frontrunner, Beji Caid Essebsi of Nidaa Tounes, has been polling at around 32 percent. The 88-year-old politician has held several top political positions including prime minister, foreign minister and parliamentary speaker since Tunisia gained independence in 1956.
His party’s strong showing in last month’s parliamentary elections has raised some concerns over the return of old regime figures since many supporters of ousted Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali were allowed to join the party and run for office.
It’s a fear his main rival, incumbent Moncef Marzouki, had been exploiting in the lead-up to Sunday’s vote. Reporting from the capital Tunis, FRANCE 24’s Chris Moore noted that, “Moncef Marzouki has been saying there are far too many former regime figures in the Nidaa Tounes movement and that’s something voters should be very wary of. He has been running on a platform of protecting the democratic gains of 2011,” said Moore.
Marzouki has positioned himself as a man of dialogue – he has worked with Ennahda since the 2011 uprising and shown himself willing to reach across ideological rifts in a deeply divided country.
Reporting from Tunisia, Moore noted that despite protests from Nidaa Tounes that “the secular movement is a much broader political church, it hasn’t stopped the likes of Moncef Marzouki from saying a vote for me is the only way to protect the gains of 2011 and avoid a return to the old one-party system.”
Ennahda in kingmaker role
Besides the two aging frontrunners, the November 2014 presidential campaign has also seen a number of young aspirants to the post, including Slim Riahi, owner of Club Africain – one of two major football clubs in Tunis, who heads the Free Patriotic Party, which came third in the October parliamentary elections.
Leftist figurehead Hamma Hammami, a veteran dissident who leads the Popular Front coalition of leftist parties, has a relatively small but committed base in an Arab nation that has a robust leftist and trade union movement.
The only woman in the field is Judge Kalthoum Kennou, a magistrate and champion of judicial independence who was a staunch – and respected – opponent of Ben Ali’s regime.
If no candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote, the presidential election goes to a second round on December 28.
While Nidaa Tounes has won the most seats in parliament, party officials have said it would not finalise a ruling coalition until after a new president has been elected. The secular movement has not ruled out a coalition with the Islamist Ennahda and has reiterated that it would accept any alliance that was “in the country’s interests”.
According to Moore, this means Ennahda could play a kingmaker role in a country where the president plays a largely ceremonial role. “Ennahda is playing a sort of waiting game,” explained Moore. “There are many potential coalition combinations – even a grand national coalition between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda, unlikely as it seems. One thing’s for sure: despite that defeat in the parliamentary elections, Ennahda remains a major player. They’ve got a very loyal, very disciplined electorate and they are going to remain on the Tunisian political scene.”