Tunisians voted on September 15 in a first round of elections to choose a successor to the late president Beji Caïd Essebsi, who passed away in July. The election proceeded in a calm and orderly way, without significant security incidents or procedural problems.
The outcome, however, represented a marked change from Tunisia’s path since the uprising in 2010–2011. The top two candidates who will move on to a runoff in October are both political outsiders. One is a constitutional lawyer without a clear political platform, while the other is a media mogul currently in prison facing money laundering charges. Candidates representing the parties that have led the country since the uprising failed to garner enough votes to continue to the runoff. Pre-election polling documented the public’s widespread discontent with the political leadership, so the repudiation of the establishment was not itself a surprise. But Tunisians are now left with a choice between two ill-defined candidates, leaving the only democracy in the Arab world with an uncertain fate.
The top vote getter in the first round was Qaïs Sa‘id, a former professor of constitutional law with no experience in government or politics, aside from an advisory role in drafting the 2014 constitution. Sa‘id ran without the backing of a political party and with the help of only a few volunteers. His stilted performance in the pre-election debates earned him the nickname “Robocop,” but he nevertheless appealed to enough of the electorate to win 18.4 percent of the vote.
Sa‘id has a reputation for strongly conservative views on social issues, opposing the equalization of inheritance rights between men and women, supporting the use of the death penalty, and opposing LGBT rights. He has also advocated for a revision of the 2014 constitution to devolve more power to the local level. His strong showing in the first round of voting surprised many people, even if pre-election polls had documented his popularity.
In the second round Sa‘id will face Nabil Qaroui, owner of the Nessma television station, who received 15.6 percent of the vote. Qaroui supported Essebsi in the 2014 race, but has never held a government position. His team ran a populist campaign, emphasizing his support for economically disadvantaged Tunisians and highlighting the work of his charitable foundation that distributed food packages to poor families. Qaroui also portrayed himself as a victim of political targeting by the current government, notably through the money laundering charges that landed him in prison in August. Due to his incarceration he was not able to speak to media outlets or participate in the televised debates during the campaign, so his views on many issues remain murky.
Since the election, Sa‘id has been endorsed by several other candidates who failed to make the runoff. Notable among these was Ennahda’s candidate, Abdel-Fattah Morou, who came in third with 12.9 percent of the vote. Ennahda’s leader Rashed Ghannouchi warmly congratulated Sa‘id on leading the first round and the party’s Shura Council subsequently endorsed Sa‘id as well. While Sa‘id is not considered an Islamist, his conservative views on social issues make him a better fit for Ennahda than Qaroui. With the endorsement of Ennahda, Sa‘id enters the runoff in a very strong position. Qaroui’s only endorsement to date has come from a candidate who received just 0.3 percent of the vote. He continues to challenge his imprisonment and his inability to campaign freely. If he loses the runoff, he may appeal the outcome, potentially setting up a battle in the courts that will be difficult to resolve in the absence of a Constitutional Court.
In Tunisia the parliament and government are more influential in setting policy than the president, so the legislative elections scheduled for October 6 now take on an even greater significance. Here, Ennahda is well positioned as it is the largest and best organized party following the fracture of Nida’ Tunis, the party Essebsi formed in 2012 to counter Ennahda. Nevertheless, the public’s antipathy to the political establishment evident in the presidential vote may carry over to the legislative elections and might impact Ennahda as well as the other parties that have been running the country since 2011.
While the next rounds of voting will determine the precise contours of Tunisia’s political landscape, it is apparent that the country’s transition to democracy is entering a new phase. The political cooperation between Nida’ Tunis and Ennahda that marked much of Essebsi’s time in office is over. What comes next is unclear. A strong showing by Ennahda in the legislative elections, potentially followed by the election of a new president Ennahda supports, may antagonize non-Islamist forces and bring Tunisia back to the turbulent politics that marked the so-called “troika” governments of 2012 and 2013.
It is also unknown how Tunisia’s new political configuration will function in the face of Tunisia’s severe economic and social challenges. For years, successive Tunisian governments have postponed difficult economic decisions as growth has lagged and the debt has increased. Neither of the two top vote getters in the presidential election spoke clearly about their economic policies, aside from general comments about the need to alleviate poverty. Neither has any experience in overseeing a national economy. Sa‘id’s views on decentralizing power could make it even more difficult to adopt needed economic reforms nationally. In any case, the composition of a new government after the legislative elections will be vital in determining economic policies going forward.
The good news for Tunisia is that the electoral system functioned well. The percentage turnout was lower compared to 2014, even though the actual number of votes cast this year was slightly higher due to a much larger base of registered voters. This suggests that Tunisians continue to value the democratic system, even if they are unhappy with the politicians and parties that have run the country since 2011. The coincident death recently of former president Zine al-‘Abedin bin Ali and the poor showing by ‘Abir Moussi, the one presidential candidate who spoke positively of Bin Ali, suggests that most Tunisians have no desire to turn the clock back to authoritarian rule. But as they enter into uncharted territory, what Tunisians actually do want is more ambiguous.