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Three Takeaways from Tunisia's Presidential Elections

posted on: Oct 23, 2019

Photo: Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

By Heba Mohammad/Arab America Contributing Writer

Advocates for a smooth transition to democratic governance are celebrating following the successful elections in Tunisia last week. I had the opportunity to hear first-hand about the presidential elections in Tunisia from recently elected officials who were visiting the United States as part of the inaugural cohort of the U.S.-MENA Experiential Partnership. Spearheaded by the Arab American Institute Foundation (AAIF) with support from the U.S. State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), this innovative partnership pairs Arab American public servants with newly-elected officials in the Arab world, for a year-long co-mentorship exchange that champions decentralization, good governance, and public-private partnerships.

The visiting Tunisian delegation, with whom I had the chance to meet, is comprised of 12 Tunisian municipal officials who were part of the historic 2018 Tunisian elections, which ushered in the first generation of elected officials at the local and city levels. The Tunisian officials have a wide range of political beliefs and backgrounds, yet when they spoke about their homeland’s nascent democracy, they were united in their commitment to the rule of law, respect for human rights, and the right to economic prosperity. The ideological differences that separate them can be palpable, but it is thanks to international programmings, such as this good governance program championed by MEPI and AAIF, that helped bring these individuals together.

The Tunisian delegation left the United States just in time for the presidential elections – which have surprised even the keenest observers. Here are the three main takeaways:

1. The political establishment is out.  

More than 20 candidates ran in Tunisia’s presidential elections. Tunisians gave a landslide victory to Kais Saied, a political outsider who ran on an independent ticket, effectively rejecting both the Islamist and the secular and liberal parties. This is a key indicator that Tunisians are eager for a change.

2. Youth turnout made all the difference.

Saied’s landslide victory was largely thanks to a strong turnout from Tunisia’s youth. According to the Sigma polling Institute, an estimated 90 percent of 18 to 25 year-olds voted for Saied, compared with 49.2 percent of voters over 60 years of age. Saied also won by more than 1.7 million votes.

3. A strong anti-corruption platform.

Saied’s commitment to eradicating corruption and his support of decentralization efforts to empower local governance of cities and municipalities spoke to the voters. This was in stark contrast to his rival Nabil Karoui, who was incarcerated for tax fraud and money laundering.

While the continued success of Tunisia’s transition to democracy is promising, there are still some fundamental economic challenges plaguing the country. Addressing them will be pivotal to supporting this nascent democracy.

At the offices of the US state department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative Tunisian Cohort with Dr. James Zogby at AAI Tunisian Cohort with the Tunisian Ambassador to the United States


Heba Mohammad is a National Field Coordinator at the Arab American Institute


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