Tunisia's presidential election: What's the big deal?

Twenty-six candidates - many political heavyweights - will run in next week's presidential vote.

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    Some candidates say they would amend the constitution to go back to a presidential system [Mohamed Messara/EPA-EFE]
    Some candidates say they would amend the constitution to go back to a presidential system [Mohamed Messara/EPA-EFE]

    With the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi in late July, Tunisians are preparing to elect a new head of state on September 15, two months earlier than originally planned.

    The first round of the presidential vote will precede parliamentary elections, scheduled for October, while a second-round runoff for the presidency would take place in November.

    Among the 26 candidates competing for the presidency are a number of political heavyweights: current Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui, and Abir Moussi, one of two female candidates and previously a senior official in deposed ruler Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali's party.

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    During the run-up to the vote, a number of candidates have provoked a debate over the nature of the role itself and the limits of presidential power.

    Under the country's founding father Habib Bourguiba, the president's powers as outlined by the 1959 constitution extended to nearly every sphere of society.

    But in the wake of the 2011 revolution, members of Tunisia's constituent assembly sought to limit the head of state's powers, resulting in a constitution that left the president with a mandate limited to foreign affairs, defence and national security, while parliament drafts and votes on legislation. 

    A stronger presidency?

    Some presidential candidates, notably Zbidi, have expressed their frustration with the current constitutional configuration, saying it allows for neither a presidential nor parliamentary system.

    "This is unreasonable. The lack of efficiency in this hybrid system disrupts economic recovery and democratic transition," Zbidi recently told Reuters news agency.

    If elected, the 69-year-old said he will put forward a constitutional amendment that would empower the presidency to a popular referendum.

    He is joined in that regard by Abir Moussi, once deputy secretary-general in Ben Ali's Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party.

    A lawyer by training, Moussi fought to prevent the RCD's dissolution and, in so doing, incurred the wrath of large segments of Tunisian society.

    "The core of the crisis lies in the political system that weakens the executive power of the president and fans infighting between power centres," Moussi told the Arab Weekly website in May.

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    "The ruling system must be changed to assert the powers of the elected president, which would allow him to implement his programme," she said.

    Ennahda, which spearheaded efforts to erect a parliamentary system during the post-revolution transition period from 2011 to 2014, recognised the problems with the current political structure.

    "The big dilemma is that executive powers ... are divided between two people: The head of state and the head of government," Abdelfattah Mourou, the party's vice president and first-ever presidential candidate, told Middle East Eye, a news portal.

    But far from causing an outcry, many Tunisians are welcoming the proposals to go back to a presidential system with open arms.

    "Tunisian politicians and the public at large have been programmed to believe that the presidency is where real power lies," Nessim Ben Gharbia, a political commentator, told Al Jazeera.

    "Many people wrongly assume that the president incarnates the state and should, therefore, have the most prerogatives."

    The institutional instability that followed Ben Ali's flight from the country amid widespread protests in 2011 may have something to do with the presidency's present popularity, Ben Gharbia said. 

    Tunisia has had nine governments since democratising. 

    Successive administrations' failure to deal with increasing unemployment and soaring inflation combined with attacks on popular tourist sites - crippling a vital sector - have left many Tunisians feeling disgruntled with their new democratic gains.  

    Vote reversal: A game-changer 

    While the presidential election was initially to be held in November, the death of Essebsi on July 25 meant it would have to be brought forward, ahead of the parliamentary election scheduled for October.

    The change in the timeline forced parties to alter their plans and put more energy into the presidential race, according to Abdel Aziz Hali, a Tunisian journalist. 

    "With the electoral calendar's reversal, someone like Prime Minister Youssef Chahed could not take the risk of throwing his party's entire weight behind the parliamentary vote only," he told Al Jazeera.

    "The parties that will advance to the second round of the presidential election will have a greater margin of manoeuvre. Regardless of how well they perform in the end, they will be able to negotiate from a position of power," Hali said.

    With the second round of the presidential election taking place after the October legislative vote, the two leading candidates that emerge from the first round could use their performance as a platform to boost their parties' chances in the parliamentary election, citing the deadlock of recent years as the relationship between president and prime minister broke down.

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    In an interview with the Tunisian radio station Mosaique FM, Chahed did not hide that his party was prioritising the parliamentary vote.

    When asked about his run for the presidency, the 43-year-old swerved around the question and instead talked up the merits of a parliamentary system.

    But Chahed said if he was voted into office, he would work on three key projects: creating a constitutional court, forging closer ties with neighbouring countries, and removing parliamentary immunity - the last of which has proven to be particularly controversial.

    Rival behind bars

    A former member of Essebsi's Nidaa Tounes party, Arabic for the "Call of Tunisia", Chahed split from the group in late 2018 after falling out of favour with the president's son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi.

    The prime minister's "war on corruption" was beginning to affect prominent businessmen close to the party and its executive director Hafedh, including media magnate and presidential candidate Nabil Karoui. 

    Soon after Karoui declared his intention to run for the top position in May, a month after President Essebsi announced he would not seek re-election, he faced a number of administrative hurdles.

    On June 18, parliament approved amendments to the electoral law that would have barred Karoui from running for president on account of his ownership of a popular television station he used to promote his philanthropic work and which, it was argued, gave him a competitive advantage over other contenders.

    Critics say the amendments were unmistakably tailored to prevent Karoui from running in the race, but Essebsi refused to ratify the law before his death.

    Karoui's chances at winning the presidential vote had appeared strong when he was suddenly arrested on August 23. Surveys by Tunisian polling agency Sigma Conseil have consistently put Karoui in the lead, with his detention only adding to his popularity.

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    His supporters described the move - which was confirmed when a court on Tuesday rejected an appeal to release him - as a plot by Chahed to sideline one of his bitterest rivals.

    They say there is no reason to detain Karoui, who has cooperated with authorities in the ongoing investigation into money-laundering and tax-evasion allegations, which were first raised by anti-corruption watchdog I-Watch in late 2016.

    "It's difficult to ignore how Chahed might've played a role in Karoui's arrest," Ben Gharbia said, noting the latter had enjoyed the protection of President Essebsi.

    Ben Gharbia said the speed with which the warrant was executed, just hours after it was issued, and the spectacular armada of police vehicles present during his arrest on a highway, were simply uncalled for. 

    Hali, the journalist, regretted it took the splintering of Nidaa Tounes - which lost its plurality in parliament after more than half its members defected, including Chahed - for Karoui to make his political ambitions known.

    "Had Karoui formed his Heart of Tunisia party [founded in June 2019] before Nidaa Tounes' breakup and the accusations brought forth by I-Watch against him, his political aspirations would have been taken more seriously," he told Al Jazeera.

    "The fact that he's only been active this past year or two really forces one to think twice about the motivations behind his candidacy."

    Lazhar Akremi, one of Chahed's advisers, accused Karoui and his brother Ghazi, a candidate in October's parliamentary election, of seeking office to secure immunity from prosecution. 

    The rivalry between candidates has become so extreme that Mohammed Abbou, another presidential hopeful, described the vote as a kind of zero-sum game where some will ultimately be forced "to leave the country" if they lose.

    Both Mourou and Zbidi, an independent endorsed by Nidaa Tounes, have expressed their concern over Karoui's arrest, saying it risked harming Tunisia's young democracy.

    Chahed for his part categorically denied the accusations levelled against him, telling Mosaique radio the judiciary's decision to look into the case at such a critical time is proof of its independence.

    More than that, the media magnate's increased popularity since his incarceration does a great disservice to his campaign, said Chahed. 

    Prerogatives also 'shaped by practice'

    For Hali, Essebsi's interpretation of the presidential role doesn't add or subtract from the powers given to the officeholder in the 2014 constitution. 

    "Unfortunately, President Essebsi hasn't been a proactive president. He could've done a lot more. Even in the face of opposition from parliament, he could've submitted his law projects to a popular referendum," he told Al Jazeera.

    "It wouldn't be accurate to say that the president's prerogatives are limited relative to those of a prime minister," he said.

    Max Gallien, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, said the president's powers are also shaped by the officeholder.  

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    "I think we should not underestimate how, despite their constitutional roles, the interplay between the presidency, parliament, and the office of the prime minister are also shaped by practice and have in the past years been shaped by the characters of the officeholders.

    "I don't think we can assume that a new president would interpret his position the same way Essebsi did," Gallien said.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News