Agonising choices: How post-Essebsi elections could cause further fragmentation for Tunisia's fragile democracy

Agonising choices: How post-Essebsi elections could cause further fragmentation for Tunisia's fragile democracy
Analysis: Following the death of President Essebsi, Tunisia got through the transition of power but challenges and fragmentation could exacerbate already tumultuous political scene as the country heads towards elections.
9 min read
12 August, 2019
The agony of choice: Presidential elections after Essebsi's death already has 100 candidates [Getty]
The death of the ageing and ill president Beji Caid Essebsi on 25th of July - to many expected - came in a contentious moment only two months before Tunisians are set to vote to elect the new head of the state and a new parliament.

The handover has been surprisingly swift so far. The parliament speakerMohamed Ennaceur, was sworn in as interim president within hours of the announcement of the president's death, and both presidential and parliamentary elections were scheduled to take place as normal.

Tunisia's main parties last week announced their candidates, with the total number hitting 100 including for the first time in an Arab country an openly gay lawyer (interviewed last month by The New Arab).

Based on the Tunisian constitution, new elections must be held no later than 90 days after the presidential office is vacated. The presidential vote was thus moved up from November 17 to September 15. Parliamentary elections are already set for October 6.

The fragile democratic transition did not take a turn for the worse, eluding worries of a power vacuum.   

"That shows the political elite is responsible enough not to create problems, but it doesn't mean that the institutions are existing and functioning," argued Med Dhia Hammami, a political analyst focusing on Tunisia. "A constitutional court [for example] still has to be put in place."

Sarah Yerkes, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, observed that while the political system proved ready and responsive in ensuring a seamless handover, the electoral apparatus appeared unprepared.

"I was very surprised that the electoral body decided to pull off elections so early," the research fellow stated, "It would have been healthier and less chaotic to reset the presidential polls for just before 23 October [when Ennaceur's time in office expires] or even run the first round of elections with parliamentary polls."

Organising and holding the packed electoral race without hiccups, in her view, could be a real challenge, recalling that the county's electoral commission (ISIE) was hampered by "logistical and political issues" in the past.

In addition, the condensed electoral schedule leaves candidates with much less time available to submit their candidacies and prepare their campaigns. With the change in the electoral calendar, candidates running for the presidency were obliged to file their nominations between 2 and 9 August. The ISIE is scheduled to announce the final list of candidates on August 31. The campaigns are set to run from September 2 to 13.

The new electoral schedule favours candidates who are already more established and better known, putting pressure on the weakest ones associated with small and independent parties

Democratic snags

Having the presidential vote shifted before the parliamentary one poses another problem.

The choice of the president is expected to create a ripple effect on the legislative elections, as most Tunisian political experts claim.

To the knowledge of parties and alliances, results of the presidential elections will be influential on the share of the vote they win in the parliamentary vote, and determining each party’s electoral weight requires that it participate in the presidential elections.

"This could be really challenging because every political party has to review its entire strategy and campaign," political scientist Larbi Chouikha told the New York Times.

"Many of them were aiming at legislative elections to have a good base and then support a presidential candidate. This changes the whole dynamic."

Yerkes, whose research focuses on Tunisia's political, economic and security developments, noted that whichever outcome of the presidential race will have a potential impact on the parties’ prospects in the legislative polls.

The new electoral schedule favours candidates who are already more established and better known, putting pressure on the weakest ones associated with small and independent parties in the rush to gather signatures for candidacy and secure funds for campaigning.

Complex legacy

Meanwhile, the death of Tunisia's first-democratically elected president after the overthrow of long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 leaves a complex legacy behind him.

For many Tunisians, he was a unifier who helped guide the country’s transition to democracy following the Jasmine revolution. When his party did not win an absolute majority in the 2014 parliamentary elections, he sought consensus with its main rival, the Muslim Ennahda party. He will be remembered for safeguarding the country's democratic institutions.

He was a promoter of women's rights. In 2018, he announced his intentions to submit a bill to parliament to grant women equal inheritance rights. During his presidency, a law was repelled that banned Tunisian Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men. In July 2017, the government passed a historic law to end gender-based violence.

However, he may be well remembered for his attempts to pass legislation providing de facto amnesty to corrupt former regime officials, and his sidelining of the country's Truth and Dignity Commission which accused Essebsi of being complicit for crimes committed while serving as a minister under Bourguiba’s rule.

Moreover, he became involved in long-running political battles with his own prime minister, Youssef Chahed, and Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahdha, that led to a major fracturing of the party. Meanwhile, the economy has continued to deteriorate.

One major challenge in the post-Essebsi transition is that the constitutional court remains vacant five years after it was established as parliament has failed seven times to agree on naming its three remaining members. It could now fall to the acting president to finalise the court.  

Hammami is not optimistic that a court be formed before the next parliament is elected, given the existing fragmentation within the assembly that prevents parliamentarians from reaching an agreement. The very high absenteeism within the Tunisian parliament also hinders the chances of getting the required percentage of MPs in the room to select the court's members. 

The other pending matter, which is to be inherited by Ennaceur, has to do with the controversial electoral law changes, proposed by the government in June, that would bar from the poll candidates who have worked in business, charities or civil society groups.

The amendments, which civil rights groups criticised as anti-democratic and unfair in their timing close to the elections, could block the presidential candidacies of some top-polling contestants including independent businessman and media mogul Nabil Karoui and Olfa Ramburg, founder of a cultural foundation.

Before he died, President Essebsi had neither rejected nor enacted the amended electoral code, leaving its status in limbo. The interim president shall decide how to handle the new code. If Ennaceur signs the law, he may be seen as acting against wishes of the departed president. If he does not sign it, he would deny what his own parliament voted.

Such limbo will have major implications for the forthcoming elections and the health of Tunisian democracy overall, according to Monica Marks, PhD research fellow at Harvard University.

Essebsi's passing away could result in the end of his secular Nidaa Tounes party, increasingly fractured and operating as two competing branches, one under the divisive leadership of his son Hafedh Caid Essebsi

Checkered landscape

The Carnegie fellow affirmed that Essebsi's passing away could also result in the end of his secular Nidaa Tounes party, increasingly fractured and operating as two competing branches, one under the divisive leadership of his son Hafedh Caid Essebsi.

Before his death, the prime minister and head of government, Chahed, defected from Nidaa and was elected as leader of a new party, Tahya Tounes, causing discord that has been evident in parliament. Various figures opposed to any engagement with the Ennahdha movement also split off from the mother party. Nidaa is likely to suffer fragmentation which will affect its vote share and voter base negatively.

Meanwhile, the secular party announced it would back Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, a technocrat and Essebsi ally, in the presidential race. The Nidaa Tounes party's leadership claimed in previous statements that its members had agreed that its favoured presidential candidate would come from those close to the late president Essebsi and his politics.   

Conversely, its traditional political rival, Ennahdha, is likely to see gains. The religious party, which has the largest number of seats in the parliament, named its first-ever presidential candidate, Abdel Fattah Mourou. One among the party's most moderate leaders, he is currently acting speaker of parliament after former speaker Mohamed Ennaceur became interim president.

Morou is set to compete against Moncef Marzouki, who is also seeking the post for a second time. He served as interim president for three years after Ben Ali was toppled, and is the current head of Al-Harak party.

With Morou running for president and Ghannouchi for parliament, Ennahdha has significant chance to take the control of the executive and legislative branches of the government

Bringing into play its own contender in the first set of elections would be a turning point for Ennahdha, a once-banned party that has only run for parliamentary roles since the 2011 revolution. Ghannouchi, its leader, previously said he would be running for parliament, a step that is viewed as a pursuit of a stronger political position for the movement.

"With Morou running for president and Ghannouchi for parliament, Ennahdha has significant chance to take the control of the executive & legislative branches of the government. It will be difficult for them to get a majority, but they may end up in a strategically strong position," Tunisian analyst Hammami tweeted days ago.

Such bid for presidency, on the other hand, carries risks for Ennahdha’s in a country with a secular tradition where there’s widespread suspicion over its motives. In the presidential elections that followed Ben Ali's ouster, the party chose not to appoint its own candidate in an attempt to avoid secular-Islamist polarisation.

Tahya Tounes, which mainly consists of former Nidaa Tounes members, is now the biggest liberal group in Tunisia's parliament, and it rules in coalition with the Ennahda party and a smaller liberal group. PM Chahed, its head, who entered the presidential race, stands good chances to succeed in the early elections however he will have to prove that he and his new party can address the country’s economic challenges more effectively.

Throughout his government, Tunisia has struggled with high inflation and widespread unemployment -along with repeated terrorist attacks- that have hit Chahed's popularity. A weakness that his political rivals are likely to exploit in the next elections.

The after-Essebsi's political arena sees new poll-leading individuals emerged as would-be challengers before his death, namely the charismatic Nabil Karoui and Abeer Moussa of the Free Constitutional Party. The independents expect voters' disappointment in the ruling parties to help them win the election.

"We're seeing a change in the players making space for a new generation of political figures to take a bigger role," Yerkes affirmed "this [election period] is an opportunity to refresh Tunisia’s democracy."  

For Hammami there will not be a political crisis as all the different parties and aspirants are working toward a very tight electoral schedule, and have no time to lose.

"The political sphere is very fragmented, power is divided, and everyone is focussing on the elections," he said, "There's no political actor right now who wants to cause instability."

With leaders facing up to a sluggish economy and many voters growing disillusioned, the eventual winner in the upcoming vote will be judged on their handling of the economic file.

Until then, the young and fragile democracy is passing through an orderly transition post-Essebsi just weeks ahead of the two rounds of elections, before it further moves along the path to a fully consolidated democracy.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec