Tunisia's next president: Who are the candidates?

Tunisia's next president: Who are the candidates?
In a significant election for Tunisia's young democracy, the wide range of options available to Tunisians could lead the country in profoundly different directions over the next five years.
12 min read
10 September, 2019
Tunisians will go to the polls to elect a president on September 15 [Getty]
On September 15, Tunisia will go to the polls to elect a president in its second freely contested election since the 2011 Revolution. In this fledgling but promising democracy, the country will be deciding on the political direction it will take for the next five years.

The election, brought forward from November after the death of the incumbent president Beji Caid Essebsi, is proving to be an ideological battleground between a wide range of competing social and political ideals.

The Tunisian people will be making their choice from a crowded field of 26 candidates. If none secures 50 percent of the vote, a second round between the top two candidates will then take place.

The contenders represent a breadth of choice which would be striking in any democracy. For a country which was subject to one-party rule in the years between decolonisation in 1956 and the Revolution in 2011, the range of candidates is breathtaking.

They differ not only in economic and social policy, but on more fundamental issues which will affect the very fabric of the Tunisian state.

Polls have identified the front-runners as Nabil Karoui, the controversial media icon; Kaïs Saïed, the conservative law professor; Abir Moussi, a woman who worked in the pre-revolutionary regime; Youssef Chahed, the current head of government, who presents himself as the candidate to continue the liberal reforms of the early post-colonial regime; and Abdelfattah Mourou, the candidate for Ennahda, the prominent Islamist party.

This tv grab taken from Ettounsiya TV shows (L to R) Abir Moussi, Abdelfattah Mourou, Mohamed Abbou and Moncef Marzouki attending a TV debate for presidential candidates [Getty]

The lead-up to this important presidential race has been controversial. In the face of a widening gap in the polls between candidates from established political parties and 'outsider' figures from the media and public life, Youssef Chahed's government passed a series of amendments to electoral law in June intended to reject the candidacies of those who had a 'high level of media exposure' or were 'apologists for human rights violations'. 

For Chahed these amendments were a matter of 'preserving democracy', while for their critics such as Nabil Karoui, they were 'an institutional coup d'État'.

In practice, they were designed to rule out the candidacies of Karoui (who owns his own media channel, Nessma TV) and Abir Moussi (who positions herself as the successor to the old regime).

A potential political crisis was averted when the sitting president Essebsi died aged 92 before he could sign off the amendments. 

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The Independent High Commission for Elections, the body which governs the running of elections, has also courted controversy. Although it did not rule out any of the front-runners, it did block the candidacy of Mounir Baatour, who had attracted attention – particularly in foreign media – as the first openly gay presidential candidate in Tunisia. Baatour met all the criteria to stand and the reasons for his rejection remain unclear.

A number of major fault lines divide the 26 candidates running for the presidency. They cut across significant social and political differences in the country.

Relationship with Islamism

Different approaches to political Islam were a major theme of the 2014 election and remain central to this year's presidential race.

Islamists were banned from the political system under the pre-revolutionary regime but the Islamist party Ennahda has been a prominent force since 2011.

The Tunisian Constitution of 2014 represented a compromise between Islamist and secular interests. Since then the Assembly has been controlled by a coalition of Ennahda and secular left-wing parties. 

After four days of discussions, on August 6, Ennahda's advisory board chose Abdelfattah Mourou as its candidate. Mourou is the co-founder and vice-president of Ennahda and a senior parliamentarian.

Ennahda's brand of political Islam has been the subject of intense criticism from certain candidates. Condemnation of Ennahda has been a consistent theme for Abir Moussi in particular, who has even suggested that the courts should introduce a ban on mixing religion and politics. This move would effectively outlaw many of those opposing her and has alarmed critics.

Yet most of the candidates fall between the two extremes of supporting Islamism and calling for a ban on it.

Kaïs Saïed is close to some Islamist groups but has distanced himself from organised political Islam in his campaign. Moncef Marzouki, the interim president of Tunisia between 2011 and 2014, stops short of full allegiance to Ennahda but has links with the party and enjoyed its support in his 2014 presidential campaign. 

Many of the secular candidates oppose Ennahda but are open to compromise.

Nabil Karoui, for example, has no issue working with them, stating 'I am against no-one. I am pragmatic.' Candidates such as Youssef Chahed and Abdelkarim Zbidi are from the left-wing secular parties which worked in coalition with Ennahda and remain happy to co-operate.

Perspectives on pre-revolutionary Tunisia 

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Abir Moussi's hostility to Islamism derives largely from her enthusiasm for pre-revolutionary Tunisia, in which Ennahda was outlawed.

Moussi worked personally with Ben Ali, the dictator toppled in 2011, and her unapologetic nostalgia for the old regime marks her out as distinct from many of the other candidates.

She is deeply hostile to the principles of the Revolution, which she blames on Islamists, and when Ben Ali's old party was banned in 2011 Moussi was one of the few who dared to challenge the ruling in court.

She advocates a return to what she hails as the security and order of pre-revolutionary Tunisia. Indeed, so much speculation surrounded her closeness with members of the former regime that in May, Ben Ali's lawyer took to Facebook to announce that there was no ongoing contact between Moussi and the former dictator, who has been living in Saudi Arabia since the Revolution. 

Moussi is not the only one with ties to pre-revolutionary Tunisia. Another candidate, Kamel Morjane, worked as Defence Minister and then Minister of Foreign Affairs under Ben Ali. Although he is less forceful in extolling the merits of the old regime, Morjane supports the inclusion of more politicians who served in Ben Ali's government and positions himself as heir to its traditions.

This nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Tunisia is a source of considerable tension with other candidates, especially those who suffered under the old regime

This nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Tunisia is a source of considerable tension with other candidates, especially those who suffered under the old regime.

In 2005 Mohamed Abbou was sentenced to three and a half years for his work for Tunisnews, a website which opposed Ben Ali. Communist candidate Hamma Hammami was imprisoned and then tortured for his political activism. The majority of the candidates are united in their celebration of the end of Ben Ali's dictatorship.

Among the candidates there is, however, much warmer feeling towards Ben Ali's predecessor, Habib Bourguiba.

Bourguiba's regime was no more democratic than that of his successor: he was made president in 1957, and was never opposed at an election in his 22 years as president.

Nevertheless, many of the present candidates celebrate his sweeping liberal reforms, which included rights for women, the introduction of public education and healthcare, and the improvement of national infrastructure.

Many of the candidates express support and admiration for the social advancements of that period, and Youssef Chahed in particular has sought to position himself as the candidate to embody the best elements of the Bourguiba tradition.

The Tunisian Constitution

The 2014 Constitution is popular with the majority of candidates, who see it as a suitable framework for the political changes they wish to make.

It reflects many of the ambitions of the left-leaning parliament which drafted it, and includes, for example, a target to include equal numbers of men and women in elected bodies.

It is under this Constitution that Tunisia has made landmark liberal reforms, such as the 2018 law change giving equal inheritance rights to men and women.

Candidates such as Abdelkarim Zbidi and Youssef Chahed advocate a modernising agenda in Bourguiba's tradition within the 2014 Constitution, while Ennahda accepts it as a compromise between Islamist and secular interests.

Mounir Baatour's flagship policy was to hold a referendum on the creation of a secular state and remove the requirement for presidential candidates to be Muslim

Others, however, are advocating constitutional change. Mounir Baatour's flagship policy was to hold a referendum on the creation of a secular state and remove the requirement for presidential candidates to be Muslim.

Given the recent history of dictatorship, the Constitution was designed to balance power between the President and Parliament, but Abir Moussi, nostalgic for the days of a strong, powerful leader, advocates greater power for the President. Her party, the Free Destourian Party, has already drafted an alternative Constitution.

Relationships with foreign powers

It is this same nostalgia for pre-2011 Tunisia which drives Moussi's mistrust of foreign powers. For her, the Revolution was a 'foreign plot' designed to undermine the integrity of Tunisian politics and society. She is ambitious for a proud, independent Tunisia which does not rely on other countries.

The socially conservative candidate Kaïs Saïed is likewise concerned about foreign involvement in Tunisia, but on a cultural, rather than a political, level.

He argues that many of the liberal reforms he opposes are the product of external influence. Saïed opposes equality in inheritance and condemns homosexuality, which he claims foreign powers are trying to encourage. He is hostile to any involvement of the West, which he sees as undermining Tunisian and Muslim traditions. 

By contrast, many of the left-wing secular candidates are more open to political and social relationships with other countries.

Significantly, candidates such as Youssef Chahed and Abdelkarim Zbidi received part of their education in France. Nevertheless, they tend to be concerned about the influx of foreign capital. In many cases, prior authorisation is now required for foreigners to invest, and the purchase or sale of real estate by foreigners needs state approval. The left-wing secular candidates remain largely attached to these controls.

'The system' vs. 'the outsiders'

Perhaps the most significant dividing line between the candidates is their relationship with the established political parties.

Although Tunisian democracy is at an early stage in its development, there is a clear division between the candidates operating from within and outside of the new political system. 

Only eight years after the Revolution, a political core comprising left-wing secular parties and the strong and influential Ennahda has become established both in the Assembly and in public consciousness. A number of the popular presidential candidates come from these parties.

Abdelfattah Mourou, for instance, has been a member of parliament since 2014 and enjoys the support of Ennahda.

Hamma Hammami has received the backing of most of the nine political parties which make up the leftist Popular Front coalition. As its founder and spokesperson, Hammami is looking to improve on the 7.8 percent of the vote he achieved in 2014.

Another member of the Popular Front, Mongi Rahoui, is also running, but has secured the support of only two parties, Al-Watad and Al-Taliaa.

Abdelkarim Zbidi is the candidate for the Nidaa Tounes party, which performed well in the 2014 parliamentary elections and has since had considerable political influence. His candidacy is weakened, however, by the political infighting which has plagued Nidaa Tounes and which led Youssef Chahed to create a splinter party, Tahya Tounes.

Since its formation in January, Tahya Tounes has already attracted 80,000 members and, as the current head of the government, Chahed's candidacy comes from a strong and well-established position within Tunisian politics.

Similarly, Moncef Marzouki is an experienced politician who was interim president from 2011 to 2014 and came second in the 2014 election. His father's resistance to the Bourguiba regime made the family outsiders during his youth, in which Marzouki emigrated to Morocco, studied in France, and travelled to India to study Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent resistance.

It was his subsequent human rights activism in Tunisia during the Ben Ali dictatorship which secured his appointment as interim president after the Revolution; Marzouki is now running from firmly within the post-2011 political system.

By contrast, the pollsters' two front-runners are clear outsider figures. Kaïs Saïed, the constitutional law expert, has never belonged to a political party, and has signalled his distance from mainstream political figures by announcing that, if elected, he would live in his own home instead of the Palais de Carthage. He has argued for the power of individual patriots, rather than those embroiled in party machinery, to transform the country.

Saïed stands alone in his support for reinstating the death penalty and overturning the many liberal reforms on which Tunisia has prided itself since the Revolution.

Nabil Karoui marked his difference from the established candidates by announcing his candidacy during Ramadan, which broke the political truce normally observed during the month. Karoui is no stranger to controversy, having been charged with money laundering and had his TV station's broadcasting suspended by police.

For the last two years, Karoui has been on air an average of five times per week, with audiences of around one million, travelling the country and visiting the most impoverished and marginalised communities in Tunisia. Nessma TV has given visibility to his charity Khalil Tounes and he promises if elected to eradicate poverty in the country.

Karoui is seeking to set himself apart from the established system, which he blames for Tunisia's stalling growth and high levels of unemployment.

It is with this contempt for the status quo that he spins his political inexperience into a positive quality, arguing to the Times that 'People want new faces. […] Maybe the best thing is that I don't have experience in ruling.'

A wide range of divergent paths have been laid at Tunisia's feet in this significant election for the country's young democracy.

The people are to make a decision which is highly symbolic as well as political, and which focuses attention on the profound social and cultural differences which have so far been peacefully reconciled through the democratic process

The people are to make a decision which is highly symbolic as well as political, and which focuses attention on the profound social and cultural differences which have so far been peacefully reconciled through the democratic process.

With Moussi, the electorate may express nostalgia for past stability and malaise at their new constitutional arrangements; the election of Karoui would communicate concern for the nation's poor, and mistrust of the post-2011 political elites; by opting for Saïed, voters would turn against the liberal reforms for which the country has gained a reputation in the region; a Chahed presidency would express a wish for a socialist and reformist agenda; and votes for Mourou would communicate a desire to place Islam at the heart of the political system. 

Will the winning candidate usher in five years of prosperity, or is Tunisia's newfound stability under threat?

The options available to the Tunisian people could lead their nation in profoundly different directions over the next five years.

As well as choosing a leader, this election will also be about deciding what the Tunisian state stands for, and what kind of face it plans to show to the world.

Aidan Chivers is a freelance journalist who writes mainly about politics. He is a recent Oxford graduate and is currently enrolled on a Master's programme which will include terms in France, Tunisia and Turkey.