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Tunisia presidential election: There are 26 candidates vying to be country’s next head of state

Sunday 15 September 2019, by siawi3


Tunisia presidential election: There are 26 candidates vying to be country’s next head of state

By Orlando Crowcroft & Reuters

last updated: 15/09/2019 - 16:09

Photo: A boy holds a picture of presidential candidate Nabil Karoui as he takes part in a rally asking for his release from prison, in front of the courthouse in Tunis, Tunisia, - Copyright
REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi/File Photo

It was a televised debate that made this week’s Democratic showdown in Houston, Texas, look conservative by comparison.

A total of 26 candidates duked it out over three nights in Tunis, in a live broadcast shown on 11 television channels and more than 20 radio stations across the Arab world.

Tunisia goes to the polls on Sunday (September 15) to elect a successor to Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in July aged 92.

Essebsi was Tunisia’s first democratically-elected president after the 2011 revolution unseated Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked the Arab Spring.

Given the destruction of Libya and Syria and descent of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt back into authoritarianism, Tunisia is often cited as the Arab Spring’s sole success story - but it has been far from an easy transition for the north African country.

Difficult than ever

As in neighbouring Egypt, Tunisia has implemented spending cuts and tax increases in order to liberalise its economy, but rising unemployment — from 12% before the revolution to 15% in 2019 — and an ongoing security crisis has made life for many Tunisians more difficult than ever.

In 2013, opposition leader Chokri Belaid was shot dead, and 2015 saw the Islamic State attacks on the Bardo Museum in Tunis and at a beach resort in Sousse, killing 60 people in total. Meanwhile, more Islamic State fighters came from Tunisia than any other nation.

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, a candidate for president, has made security issues his key focus, and pledged to continue the economic reforms he spearheaded as prime minister, however difficult they may be for the Tunisian middle class and working poor.

“We have to focus on the economy in order to give Tunisians prosperity and welfare, in order to give jobs for young Tunisians and in order to prepare for a new sustainable model of development in Tunisia,” Chahed told Reuters.

His resolve will certainly be well-received by Tunisia’s creditors at the International Monetary Fund, which struck a $2.8 (€2.5) billion deal with the country in 2016, when Chahed came to power. But it may not win him votes.

“There is a disappointment with what democracy has produced so far since the revolution. It has been eight years and people’s lives haven’t got any better,” Anthony Dworkin, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Euronews.

“The economy is still a mess [...]. People are losing faith in the nation’s democratic system. There’s this real sense that all these politicians are the same, and that creates an opening.”

Tax evasion

Stand up, Navi Karouni. A media mogul-turned-politician, Karouni, 56, has been dubbed ‘Tunisia’s Berlusconi’ and bolstered his populist message with generous handouts to the country’s poor, all televised via his media network.

In August, Karouni was jailed for tax evasion and will run for president on Sunday from his jail cell - but it hasn’t dented his support, and the 56-year-old was polling ahead of both Chabed and Abdelfattah Mourou, the 71-year-old founder of the Ennahda party.

Another populist candidate, Kaïs Saïed, has called for a reinstatement of the death penalty and described homosexuality as a foreign plot against Tunisia. Abir Moussi — the only female candidate — was a supporter of the ousted Ben Ali. Mounir Baatour, a lawyer, is the first openly gay man to run for the leadership of an Arab state.

Despite the build-up to the poll, it is unlikely that Sunday will see a result. In order to win outright, a candidate would have to secure 50% of the vote, a difficult prospect in such a crowded field. More likely is a second or third round after Tunisia’s parliamentary elections in October.

But although Chabed is the most prominent individual and Ennahda Tunisia’s best-known political party, which way the vote will go is anyone’s guess. “It’s impossible to call,” said Dworkin.



Who are the main candidates in Tunisia’s presidential election?

Some of Tunisia’s most prominent politicians are taking part in Sunday’s hotly-contested election.

15 sept 19 - 10 hours ago

Who are the main candidates in Tunisia’s presidential election?
A candidate requires a majority to win the September 15 vote, otherwise there will be a second round in November [Fethi Belaid, Hasna/AFP]
more on Tunisia

Tunisia’s presidential race features 24 candidates, including two women, vying to replace the country’s late leader Beji Caid Essebsi who died in July.

The crowded field of 26 names was reduced slightly by the last minute withdrawals of two candidates.

Tunisia’s president controls foreign and defence policy and can also block legislation passed by parliament.

Candidates must secure 50 percent of the vote to win on Sunday, but if no single candidate obtains a majority, the two candidates with the most votes will advance to a second, decisive round.

Here are some of the main contenders:

Youssef Chahed

As prime minister since 2016, Youssef Chahed has made a series of tough public spending cuts through an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan programme aimed at reducing Tunisia’s large public debt.

READ MORE: Tunisia’s presidential election: What’s the big deal?

The former agricultural engineer said his coalition government pulled Tunisia back from the brink of economic disaster, but critics in the unions and elsewhere say spending cuts weakened the economy and hurt the poor.

A former member of the late president’s Nidaa Tounes party, Chahed quarrelled with Essebsi’s son and was expelled, prompting him to form his own party in January 2019.

This summer he revealed that, like many other Tunisians, he too had French nationality, but said he had now renounced it.
Youssef Chahed
Chahed, an engineer, has made a series of unpopular public spending cuts [Hassene Dridi/AP Photo]

Nabil Karoui

The businessman and media mogul was indicted in July and arrested just weeks before the first round of the poll on charges of money laundering.

But the 56-year-old was given the greenlight to run and has hit the campaign trail by proxy, deploying his wife and activists from his Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia) party to woo voters.

In recent years, Nabil Karoui has used his popular television channel Nessma to launch high-profile charity campaigns, appearing often in designer suits as he travelled across the country to meet some of its poorest.

“It has helped me get closer to people and realise the huge social problems facing the country. I have been touched by it,” he once told AFP news agency.
Nabil Karoui
The media mogul is running for office from behind bars after being arrested last month on charges of money laundering and tax fraud [Hassene Dridi/AP Photo]

Abdelfattah Mourou

The 71-year-old was one of the founders of the moderate Islamist Ennahdha party, banned for decades before the 2011 revolution, and is now its first candidate for the presidency.

A lawyer, Abdelfattach Mourou has distanced himself from the party’s more socially conservative positions and left it in 1991 after it failed to clearly condemn an attack on a bureau of the then ruling party.
READ MORE:Young Tunisians sceptical ahead of presidential election

He rejoined the party after the 2011 revolution and his secular critics say his position as a moderate in the party, along with his humour and traditional dress, disguise more conservative beliefs.

Ennahdha has been in several coalition governments since the revolution and its focus appears still to be more on the October 6 parliament election, in which its leader Rached Ghannouchi is standing, than the presidency.

However, Mourou can count on a solid chunk of voters who have backed Ennahdha in elections since the revolution while the secular parties have constantly reformed themselves under different leaders and names.
Abdelfattah Mourou
Mourou is seen as a moderate who advocates more openness in the party [Hassene Dridi/AP]

Abdelkarim Zbidi

Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, 69, presents himself as being above party politics and infighting that he says have held back economic reforms in recent years. He said he will change the constitution to resolve the deadlock between the presidency and parliament.

Zbidi has served as defence minister twice since 2011, first in a cabinet led by the Islamists of Ennahdha and later under Chahed.

A close friend of the late Essebsi, he enjoys the support of secular parties including Nidaa Tounes.
Abdelkarim Zbidi
Though running as an independent, Zbidi has been endorsed by Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party [Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters]

Moncef Marzouki

A veteran opponent of dictatorship, Moncef Marzouki was installed as president by Ennahdha after the 2011 revolution and oversaw Tunisia’s transition to democracy.

But his controversial alliance with Ennahdha clouded the 74-year-old neurologist’s reputation. In 2014, he ran against Essebsi in the North African country’s first democratic elections, but lost out.
Moncef Marzouki
A veteran opponent of dictatorship, Marzouki was installed as president by Ennahdha after the 2011 revolution [Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters]

Mohamed Abbou

As a lawyer, Mohamed Abbou defended the rights of political prisoners held under longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and was himself imprisoned for two years during the deposed dictator’s rule.

He served as minister in the first post-revolution cabinet but resigned a few months later to protest what he claimed were obstacles hampering the fight against corruption.

Abbou, who heads the Attayar party, has been campaigning against what he calls “dirty money”.
Mohamed Abbou
Abbou, the 53-year-old lawyer, defended political prisoners taken prior to the 2011 revolution [Anis Mili/AFP]

Mehdi Jomaa

Mehdi Jomaa is an engineer by training. He entered the political arena following the 2011 Arab Spring uprising after years of living abroad, mostly in France where he worked for Hutchinson, a subsidiary of French energy giant Total.

The 57-year-old served as minister of industry in 2013. A year later, he became prime minister heading up a cabinet of technocrats following a deep political crisis that threatened the country’s nascent democracy.

In 2017, he set up his own political party, Al Badil Ettounsi (Tunisian Alternative).
Mehdii Jomaa
A technocrat, Jomaa replaced an Ennahda-led cabinet during a period of polarisation between secularists and Ennahda [Jane Hahn/AP]

Abir Moussi

A champion of former ruler Ben Ali’s government, the 45-year-old lawyer defended the toppled president’s Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party during the trial for its dissolution after the revolution.

Abir Moussi, one of the two women candidates in the running, is a passionate opponent of Islamist parties and now heads the Free Destourian party, a group formed from remnants of Ben Ali’s RCD.

Supporters describe her as a brave woman of principles while her critics say her political views are divisive.
Abir Moussi
Moussi is one of two women candidates vying for the top position [Anis Mili/AFP]

Kais Said

Nicknamed “Robocop” because of his abrupt, staccato speech, Kais Said has scored well in recent opinion polls although pundits say they are unable to explain the rise of this newcomer to politics.

The 61-year-old law professor is an expert on constitutional affairs.

Said has no partisan support and has not organised any political meetings. Instead, he has gone door-to-door to meet voters to explain his policies, which are rather conservative.
Kais Saied
A constitutional law expert, Said is an outspoken critic of corruption [Moneem Sakhri/AFP]