Tunisia faces final test on road to democracy

Tunisia faces final test on road to democracy
Voters choose their new president on Sunday, an election that could result in elements of the old regime dominating parliament and controlling the presidency.
4 min read
21 November, 2014
Essebsi leads polls in the presidential election [Getty]
On Sunday, Tunisia will take a final step on its journey from dictatorship to democracy. In fewer than four years, the cradle of the Arab Spring has rid itself of a hated dictator, Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali, adopted a constitution regarded as the region's most progressive, and voted for a representative parliament to much international acclaim.

Tunisians are now preparing to vote for a new president, an event that will shape the country for the next five years. 

But failures by politicians to fulfil economic promises and guarantee security in post-revolution Tunisia has had many voters looking to the old order for answers. Indeed, in parliamentary elections in October, the secular party Nidaa Tounes ["Call for Tunisia"], which has links to the old regime, became the dominant parliamentary bloc, winning 85 of 217 seats as voters deserted the Islamist party Ennahdha, which now holds just 69 seats.

The presidential candidate for Nidaa Tounes, Beji Caid Essebsi, served the regime of Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba before him. At 88, he is one of the oldest presidential candidates. But he is also the frontrunner and one of five Ben Ali regime figures in the race for Tunisia's top job.

So why is such an old-establishment figure so popular in "new" Tunisia?

Moadh Chabbat, a student from Nabeul, has an answer. "He may be 88 but he is the only candidate who can bring change to this country. He can help the youth with his experience in the old positions," said the 26-year-old.

"He is the only man of state who can fix the economy and ensure security. Only Essebsi can help get the prices lower and provide a descent life style for all Tunisians."

     He may be 88 but he is the only candidate who can bring change to this country.
- Moadh Chabbat, student
Essebsi's main competitor is Moncef Marzouki, the interim president and a long-time opponent to the Ben Ali regime, while Hamma Hammami, a former dissident and now the leader of Tunisia's socialist Popular Front, also enjoys support.

With Nidaa Tounes now controlling parliament, Marzouki and Hammami supporters fear a victory for Essebsi will revive the old regime.

Imen Maalouf, a teacher from Ouerdia, said: "Four years after the revolution we are seeing old regime figures speaking freely on television. I find this unacceptable. Their comeback is scary. We should be aware of their danger."

Marzouki has declared throughout his campaign that the old regime machine is returning. He is considered by many as the only candidate who can shield the revolution and lead the country to a new era.

He is an icon for many ordinary Tunisians, and the only answer to the threat they say Essebsi poses.

Salem Bahri, 46, a construction worker from Raouad, agreed. "Only Marzouki can fight the old regime, which has come back to life," he said. "His expertise will lead many social and economical reforms and his good revolutionary soul cares about the poor."
Ghazi Mrabet, a lawyer who has represented many activists, said it was crucial that Tunisia gained what he called a "social democracy" - something he did not believe Nidaa Tounes would provide.

"Essebsi and his party will be the continuity of the old regime. We need a candidate that can respect human rights, who will protect the revolution."  

"The system is trying to get its revenge on the youth. The situation is critical - we shall not let this happen."

Others, however, see the old regime everywhere they look.

Walid Fayla is a 29-year-old unemployed graduate from Ben Arous. "It exists everywhere - in Nidaa Tounes and in Ennahdha," he said. "Nobody can deny their existence in Nidaa Tounes and how they can be an extension of Ben Ali's party."

While Essebsi, Marzouki and Hammami are undoubtedly front-runners in the race to Carthage, more than two dozen candidates have registered for the election. Several have since withdrawn, but those that remain represent a wide cross-section of Tunisian society in what is being seen as the greatest test for its fledgling democracy.