/ 30 January 2019

Election fever grips Tunisia months ahead of polls

President Beji Caid Essebsi
President Beji Caid Essebsi (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Election fever is sweeping Tunisia well ahead of parliamentary and presidential polls set for late 2019.

President Beji Caid Essebsi has accused Prime Minister Youssef Chahed of seeking power through a secret deal with another party.

Meanwhile economic woes, mass strikes over public sector wages, and bitter divisions within Essebsi’s party have focused attention on the elections.

Here is some background on Tunisia’s third round of national polls since the 2011 revolution that toppled longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked the Arab Spring uprisings.

When is the vote?

Tunisia’s post-revolution 2014 constitution demands legislative elections within two months of parliament’s mandate expiring — between October and early December.

That should take place before the presidential poll.

The North African country’s electoral commission is set to decide the exact dates within weeks.

Will Essebsi stand?

Essebsi, who at 92 is the world’s second-oldest head of state after Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, said this week he had no ambition for a second term.

“My ambition is not to stay president for life,” he said.

But his office has previously confirmed reports that he could stand if his party Nidaa Tounes, riven by internal divisions, becomes stronger and unites behind him at a March congress.

His son Hafedh, the party’s leader whose strongarm tactics have sparked tensions, is widely rejected even within his own camp.

Who might oppose him?

Chahed, Essebsi’s appointee-turned-rival, has yet to throw his own hat into the ring — but may be preparing to do so.

The premier is seen as close to a new progressive platform — Tahia Tounes — which has positioned itself as an alternative “modernist” movement taking on the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party.

Nidaa Tounes formed a coalition with Ennahdha that lasted four years, but has since split.

Its leader, Essebsi’s son Hafedh, has been battling to oust Chahed for months.

The future of his rivalry with Essebsi may become clearer after party congresses in March.

Ennahdha, which did well at municipal elections in May, has yet to decide whether to put forward a candidate for president or to back an ally.

What kind of poll?

Tunisia’s relatively flexible election rules could mean multiple candidates make presidential bids.

“Many are there just to make a name for themselves,” said Khayam Turki, a political analyst at Joussour, a think tank.

As for the legislative vote, a draft bill could impose a 5% electoral threshold that parties must achieve to be represented in parliament, entrenching the major parties’ domination.

“The risk is that (this could) impoverish parliamentary debate” and be out of keeping with the nature of “a transitional democracy”, said political scientist Selim Kharrat.

Mood on streets

Tunisia is battling high unemployment, particularly among the youth, and inflation at 7.5%.

The powerful UGTT trade union confederation has staged a series of crippling strikes over social and economic reforms, demanding bigger public sector wage increases.

Protesters took to the streets of Tunis in January shouting “the Tunisian people do not accept humiliation” and slamming Chahed for bowing to reforms dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The UGTT has pledged to play a “peaceful and civilised” role in the polls.

Economic issues aside, politicians may be tempted to focus on polarising issues of identity such as the roles of religion and women’s rights.

© Agence France-Presse