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Tunisia elections: New issues, new candidates

September 14, 2019

Tunisians are heading to the polls in mid-September. This time, the battle for the country's highest office is different. There's a lot of passion involved, as always, but the issues are more serious.

People walking past election posters in Tunis
Image: imago images/Xinhua/A. Wzzine

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi passed away about a month ago, aged 92. Now, his successor – interim President Mohamed Ennaceur – may remain in office for up to 90 days according to the constitution. But Tunisia has moved forward its elections from early October to September 15.

Twenty-six candidates are vying for the presidency. Among them is Nabil Karoui, who two weeks ago was spectacularly arrested while traveling on the motorway and later jailed for tax evasion and money laundering. This very fact, however, could help the founder of Tunisia's biggest private television broadcaster in his bid for the presidency.

Karoui: The anti-politician

The wealthy businessman embodies the kind of anti-politician that is so revered across many parts the world these days, says Henrik Meyer, who heads the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation's Tunis office. He tells DW that "he deliberately presents himself as someone unlike other politicians who strive so much to come across as respectable." Meyer says Mr Karoui does not even try to go down this route and instead styles himself as someone who has little in common with the political elite.  

Karoui's arrest made major headlines, says Meyer. He says many Tunisians think that the timing of his arrest was no coincidence. Meyer admits that "one can certainly get the impression that the timing was politically motivated." But, he adds, it is hard to say whether Karoui will profit from this. In any case, Meyer says that "he seems to be dealing with his arrest quite well on a personal level."

Nabil Karoui being arrested
Karoui enjoys broad support despite facing allegations of fraudImage: Reuters/Z. Souissi

Mourou: A moderate Islamist

Abdelfattah Mourou, of Tunisia's moderate Islamist Ennahdha party, is another hot contender for the presidency. Since 2014, Ennahdha has been part of the government coalition and has advocated a conservative and pragmatic policy agenda – reflecting the current mood in Tunisia.

Religious issues play a far smaller role in year's election campaign than in the run-up to the 2014 elections. These days, most voters are much more concerned about pressing issues like employment, poverty and the future of Tunisia's young generation. As such, Mr Mourou has vowed if elected to do everything he can to tackle rampant unemployment in the country's south.

Vying for voters on the net

This time, parties are not only campaigning in the streets and squares of Tunisia but also on social media. And voters seem to care deeply about the various policy platforms being proposed. "The candidates are focused on how to communicate with the electorate on the internet, they have understood that the digital realm has an impact on the political sphere," explains Tunisian political scientist Jamaa al-Qassimi. He says politicians are now being increasingly judged by what they promise voters.

Abdelfattah Mourou
Abdelfattah Mourou is from the moderate Ennahda partyImage: Getty Images/AFP/F. Belaid

Political analyst Mansour Ayouni says Tunisian voters are now paying close attention to whether politicians can be trusted. He says this has become a key factor in the run-up to the election.

Mounir Baatour, the leader of Tunisian LGBT+ rights group Shams, is no longer running for office, however. He had hoped to fight for the rights of homosexuals and transgender people as Tunisian president, even though the odds of being elected would have been incredibly slim, as most Tunisians reject homosexuality. Indeed, only 7% of the population say they find homosexuality acceptable. His candidacy was rejected, and Baatour bemoaned on Twitter that he was not given a clear explanation why.

Election closely watched in Germany

The outcome of Tunisia's elections will matter to Germany, too. After all, the country is the biggest recipient of German development aid. Meyer of the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation says Germany wants to see Tunisia undergo a gradual, democratic transition and become a role model for the Arab world and African continent. He says "whether Tunisia will keep receiving this much aid will depend on whether it stays on the path towards democracy; if it veers off course against all expectations, Germany, the EU and other actors will adjust their position accordingly." 

Read more: Seven jihadis get life sentences for 2015 Tunisia attacks

Many observers, including Meyer, are optimistic. Meyer says "Tunisia has for a long while been a country centered on political and societal consensus." Adding that "in 2015, Tunisian civil society representatives were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for a political consensus model that is accepted by much of Tunisian society."

So while Meyer says the run-up to the elections is not entirely without controversy, "I believe that Tunisians are highly conscious of the fact that they carry responsibility for themselves and their country."

Economic tensions in Tunisia

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East