Tunisia Conducts Second Democratic Presidential Election With Surprise Results
By: Hamza Khan/Arab America Contributing Writer
In a dramatic turn of events this week, Tunisia’s presidential elections have produced two runners-up from outside the fragile democracy’s political establishment. Jailed media magnate, Nabil Karoui, is holding in second place behind constitutional scholar, Kais Saied, according to the country’s independent election commission. While Karoui was anticipated to do well following an extensive goodwill campaign he launched to help struggling Tunisians in some of the country’s poorest localities, Saied’s rise was a surprise to most.
This is partly because he is registered as an independent candidate with no ties to any of Tunisia’s 200+ political parties. Trailing not too far behind Saied and Karoui, in third place is the En-Nahda party’s Abdul Fattah Mourou, a mild-mannered religious scholar known for his progressive support for democratic reforms and the rights of minorities and women. With around a third of ballots remaining uncounted, there is a chance Mourou and Saeid will face off in the second round of presidential elections scheduled for later this year, should Karaoui lose his current lead among the ballots.
Tunisia remains the only Arab country to emerge relatively unscathed from the Arab Spring of 2011, with its democracy intact. The country has been dogged by high unemployment and declining standards of living and higher education going as far back as the global recession a decade ago. Its democracy nearly came undone when Islamist extremists launched a coordinate set of terror attacks on liberal political figures in 2013 but were saved by an impressive team of negotiators from Tunisian civil society known as “the Quartet”.
The resulting “National Dialogue” led to a period of “Rule by Consensus” in the Tunisian parliament which acted to safeguard the rights of both religious and irreligious Tunisians–a major concern following the 2013 attacks. However, a consensus rule has also paralyzed parliament in matters of economic & judicial reform. The constitutionally mandated supreme court still has no justices due to infighting amongst various parliamentary blocs, and the government has been largely unable to pass meaningful legislation to reform the country’s statist economy.
Tunisia’s elections follow a trend of Muslim societies rejecting establishment control across the world. Earlier this year, Turkey’s ruling party was dealt a major blow when the mayoral election of Istanbul was won by the opposition. In 2018, Malaysia and Pakistan saw major victories for reformists Mahathir bin Mohammad and Imran Khan, respectively, signaling a retreat by the ancien regime. In the Arab World however, Tunisia remains in many eyes the last, best hope for democratic reform in a troubled region dominated by autocrats and blighted by human rights atrocities ranging from the humanitarian crisis in Yemen to the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi authorities, not to mention civil wars in Libya and Syria.
Occupying a landmass the size of the US Eastern Seaboard, Tunisia is a North African country whose population is considered the best educated and by far the most socially liberal in the Arab World. Its population is small, 11 million, equal to that of Ohio, with a majority living in the Sahel region on the Mediterranean coast. Previously it was a major hub for tourism and filming, several major productions including Star Wars & Indiana Jones were filmed there.
The country also sticks out for its commitment to pluralism: following Gamel Nasser’s calls for the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries in 1967, Tunisia’s government refused. The outgoing cabinet features a Jewish member–Rene Trablesi, as tourism minister, and the Muslim Democratic political party, En-Nahda proudly features a Jewish candidate for parliament. The country is home to well-treated Orthodox and Catholic Christian minorities, as well.
Saied’s victory as the front-runner in the first round of Tunisia’s presidential election comes at significant cost to the country’s outgoing prime minister, Youssef Chahed of the Nida Tounnes party. A social secularist & liberal (as opposed to the social moderates who form the base for the country’s largest party, En-Nahda), Chahed was viewed as a capable administrator who was hamstrung by the makeup of his parliamentary bloc and its commitment consensus rule. Voters have come to blame Chahed, Nidaa Tounnes, and to a lesser degree En-Nahda for the country’s economic woes.
While rumors abound that he jailed his former financial backer, Nabil Karoui, as a way to keep the latter out of the political process, observers note Karoui has been under investigation for some time for corruption dating back to the previous Ben Ali regime. Karoui is often compared to Donald Trump for his sharp elbows and media magnate-turned-populist appeal. Earlier this year, an effort to legally bar Karoui from running for office did become law in parliament but was delayed constitutionally from implementation due to the rules of procedure regarding how and when a bill becomes a law in Tunisia.
Tunisians of all stripes are convinced that illegal financial contributions were being funneled to the campaigns of Chahed and possibly Karoui by Gulf powers who worry that democratic reform in Tunisia could spell an end for their monarchies. Both campaigns, who do have ties to the former Ben Ali regime in one way or another, strenuously deny such allegations. Earlier this year, a report detailing Tunisia’s history of torture and sexual violence against political detainees was redacted for reasons unknown to exclude a section detailing the known and extensive use of rape as a form of torture against religious Muslim prisoners of the previous regime.
The next round of the presidential election will likely be held on October 6, the same day as the country’s parliamentary elections.