As Tunisia prepares for its presidential runoff, likely to be scheduled later in December, the popular elections for which Tunisians fought so hard may be undermining the country’s future democratic prospects. In their choice between the interim president, Moncef Marzouki, and Beji Caid Essebsi, a politician from the era of former president Habib Bourguiba, more Tunisians than ever will be casting votes against individuals or ideologies that they oppose, rather than for candidates or parties that they support. Moreover, with both candidates resorting to personal attacks and fearmongering to win votes, they are focusing far more on divisive rhetoric than concrete plans to address Tunisia’s outstanding political, economic, and security challenges.
The results of the first round of the presidential election were both anticipated and surprising. Riding a wave of popular support, anti-Islamist sentiment, and security concerns, Essebsi’s staunchly secular Nidaa Tounes—a liberal party founded in 2012 as a secular counterweight to Islamist Ennahda—had placed first in October’s legislative elections, reinforcing Essebsi’s position as the clear frontrunner in a 27-candidate presidential race. But when Marzouki finished only six points, or about 200,000 votes, behind Essebsi on November 28, Essebsi realized that he faced a far closer race than anticipated.
As Nidaa Tounes’s founder and presidential hopeful, Essebsi has been fervently anti-Islamist from the start. During legislative and presidential election campaigns, he has played on Tunisians’ fears in the wake of the numerous Islamist-inspired domestic terrorism incidents that were almost unheard of prior to the revolution. He has constantly questioned Ennahda’s commitment to democracy, saying that “the fundamental difference between them and us is that we entered a democratic process, whereas they take orders from God, and not the people.”
In light of the presidential runoff, Essebsi has now redirected his diatribes toward his opponent Marzouki. In a recent interview with France24, Essebsi called Marzouki “the candidate of Islamists, radicals, and Salafists.” In another interview with Radio Monte Carlo, Essebsi claimed that Marzouki is “supported by jihadist Salafists and the ‘League of Defense of the Revolution,’ which are all violent parties” and accused Marzouki of inviting Salafis to speak at his rallies and allowing Ennahda to organize his campaign. Ennahda has not fielded a presidential candidate of its own, in keeping with the Ennahda-led “troika” coalition’s agreement to step down in July 2014, following the dual assassinations of leftist political leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. Still, Marzouki is widely understood to be Ennahda’s candidate of choice.
Though Marzouki has engaged in less fear-mongering than Essebsi, he also has done his fair share of political mudslinging, telling France24 that his opponent is “a man of the old system” who is “pushing toward violence and division.” Marzouki also linked Essebsi to the previous regime of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, saying “he was interior minister and he knew all about the torture and corruption under the dictatorship and said nothing about it.”
Deepening the Regional Divide
Now, Essebsi’s aggressive rhetoric has sparked a potentially destabilizing backlash. A stark regional divide had already emerged in the recent election, with Marzouki—who hails from the southern-most governorate of Tataouine—winning the south and much of the western border region and Essebsi capturing the urban, wealthier regions of Tunis and the coastal Sahel. In response to Essebsi’s description of Marzouki supporters as “Islamists” and “violent,” protests erupted in the southern city of Medenine where protesters chanted popular slogans from the 2011 revolution. Some of the chants were aimed at the former ruling party of which Essebsi had been a member, such as, “Down with the people’s executioner, down with the Destourian party,” and “Tunis is Free, RCD out,” a reference to the ruling party of Tunisia which was overthrown during the 2011 revolution.
Seeking to calm the mood among his supporters, Marzouki’s campaign released a statement saying that it did not call for protests in any region and implored Tunisians against any actions “that could raise tensions at this delicate time.” Since then, key political players have attempted to mollify tensions, both between the candidates and among ordinary Tunisians. Chafik Sarsar, the president of the Independent High Authority for Elections, the independent public body that administers the elections, met with each candidate, asking them to tone down their rhetoric for the sake of Tunisia’s transition. He has also repeated these appeals in public. Ennahda’s President Rached Ghannouchi has called upon all Tunisians, especially Ennahda followers, to support the democratic process and to avoid incendiary rhetoric that could further divide an already polarized country.
In response to the protests, Essebsi has attempted to smooth over allegations of fomenting national divisions, saying in an interview with Nessma TV that his recent statements “include no evidence of regional bias” and that he stands “in the utmost solidarity with the people of the south and their demands.” Essebsi further attempted to ameliorate tensions during a visit to the popular Halfaouine neighborhood in Tunis, stating, “We are all Tunisians and he who incites to division between the north and the south is not worthy of a response from us.” However, in the same speech, he continued to ridicule Ennahda and Islamists, blaming them for poor conditions in Tunisia today.
Time for Responsible Campaigning
Since the revolution, Tunisia’s political leaders have consistently expressed their support and belief in democracy. In turn, Tunisians have showed up again and again to cast their votes. But democracy is not simply a question of ballot boxes and mere procedures of democratic governance; it also requires the nurturing a democratic political culture.
As Tunisia continues its post-revolution transition, it is essential to build a system that can fulfill the demands of the revolution, lest Tunisians give up their democratic experiment all together. This also requires political leaders to act responsibly. By inserting divisive rhetoric into the political debate and exploiting an increasingly polarized populace, Essebsi and Marzouki are both helping to undermine the democratic institutions and culture they so vehemently claim to support.
Undoubtedly, political campaigns are a dirty business, in new and mature democracies alike. But for Tunisia to become a true success story, instead of adding to the long list of failed Arab democratization projects, Essebsi and Marzouki must prioritize Tunisia’s democratic prospects over their personal political ambitions.
Katie Bentivoglio is a Junior Fellow in the Carnegie Middle East program.