The surprise results of Tunisia’s first-round presidential election gave a clear message to the country’s political establishment: Tunisians want change and they want it now. Neither of the two winning candidates set to face off in the second round have ever held political office nor are affiliated with the political parties that have led Tunisia’s transition. Many of the issues that sparked the uprising eight years ago—like corruption and unemployment—continue to bedevil the North African nation. Yet the first-round vote demonstrates that Tunisians aren’t willing to give up on democracy and want new leaders.

Protesters march along Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, Tunisia, April 10, 2012. (Samuel Aranda/The New York Times)
Protesters march along Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, Tunisia, April 10, 2012. (Samuel Aranda/The New York Times)

Emerging from a field of 26 candidates, political outsiders Kaïs Saïed, a former law professor, and media magnate Nabil Karoui came in first and second, with 18.4 percent and 15.6 percent of the vote, respectively. They will face off in a runoff vote in the coming weeks. Both are considered populists, albeit of very different stripes. “Both he [Karoui] and Saïed are men of the people. They have our best interests at heart. I’m confident that they will improve our situation,” Layla Mansour, a cashier in Tunis’ Sidi Bou Said neighborhood, told Middle East Eye.

Heading into the election, Karoui—who was controversially imprisoned during the campaign period on charges of money laundering and tax evasion and remains so—was largely expected to be a top contender. He owns the popular Nessma TV channel and has used it as a platform to launch charitable causes. Addressing poverty was among his chief campaign pledges.

Few saw Saïed as a leading contender, despite consistently receiving double-digit support in pre-election polling. His unconventional campaign—he did not hold mass rallies or have a social media presence and spent little—led many observers to dismiss his candidacy. But, he was able to appeal to a broad array of Tunisians, from Islamists—even recently receiving the endorsement of the moderate Ennahda party—to leftists and students. His radical decentralization program, which would place significant power in small local councils, found resonance with Tunisians who feel that the post-Ben Ali political system has failed to deliver.

Although the results have been characterized as a stern rebuke of the political establishment, it’s not all bad news for Tunisia’s ruling elite. Splintering within the Nidaa Tounes party saw incumbent Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and Minister of Defense Abdelkarim Zbidi run on separate tickets. Combine their vote totals, and one could have cruised to second place behind Saïed. Ennahda ran a candidate for president for the first time, Abdelfattah Mourou, who came in third place in the vote with 12.9 percent.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for October 6, Saïed’s first-round victory should catalyze Tunisia’s major political parties to take stock of their governing performance.

Tunisia’s Electoral Success

Voter apathy over the pace of change was a major concern heading into the election. Last year, turnout for Tunisia’s first-ever municipal elections only registered at 35 percent. A March 2019 International Republican Institute (IRI) survey revealed that 65 percent of Tunisians were dissatisfied with how democracy had developed. More worryingly, nearly the same number of Tunisians (46%) said they preferred democracy to other forms government as those that supported military rule (45%). In 2013, 70 percent of Tunisians preferred democracy.

Yet, estimates suggest that 51 percent of Tunisians turned out to the polls on September 15. This represents a double-digit turnout drop from the last presidential election in 2014. But, with an additional 1.5 million voters registered since 2014, roughly the same number of Tunisians participated in 2019 as in the country’s first-ever free presidential election five years ago. "Tunisians are certainly frustrated but did not give up on democracy," said Leo Siebert, USIP’s country manager in Tunisia.

This is Tunisia’s fourth election since the 2011 uprising. International observation missions have hailed the polls as credible and transparent. “[The election] represents a positive achievement and an important step in the consolidation of the country’s developing democratic political system. No matter the outcome of this election, Tunisians should take great pride in their electoral process,” noted a joint IRI-National Democratic Institute preliminary statement. Tunisia’s democracy is far from perfect, but it has built a strong foundation with its ability to conduct free and fair polls.

Tunisia’s Struggles

Corruption continues to be among the chief sources of discontent for Tunisians and has impeded the country’s economic growth. Freedom House’s 2019 report on Tunisia says that efforts to combat corruption—largely conducted through powers granted under the state of emergency in place since 2015—have focused on emerging elites, while leaving corrupt figures with ties to the Ben Ali regime unscathed.

Unemployment and a lagging economy drove many Tunisians to the streets in 2010 and 2011 to overthrow the autocratic regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Despite the efforts of successive governments, the official unemployment has grown, hitting 15.5 percent overall and nearly 30 percent in the interior regions. Meanwhile, inflation has risen to 6.7 percent and the national debt has reached 70 percent of GDP. A 2016 loan program with the International Monetary Fund to overhaul the country’s flailing economy by cutting deficits and public services has drawn the ire of many Tunisians who view the state as a chief economic engine.

Tunisia has struggled with terrorism and the chaos in Libya has caused further instability. Transitional justice continues to be a concern for many Tunisians. A Constitutional Court—which could have made a ruling on Karoui’s case—has yet to be formed. The reality of democracy has not met its promise for many Tunisians—at least not yet.

The path ahead for the second round is deeply uncertain, particularly given Karoui’s state of legal limbo. Days after the election, Ben Ali died in exile in Saudi Arabia. His death was particularly symbolic in the wake of the election results. Tunisians are more than ready to put the Ben Ali era behind them and want figures associated with that regime out of power.

Eight years and four elections since its uprising, Tunisia is at an important inflection point for its democracy. No democratic transition is a linear process nor a quick one. And Tunisia has had its steps forward and its steps back. But, the surprising results of its first-round presidential election demonstrate that Tunisia has consolidated one critical component of democracy: the ability to conduct credible and transparent elections. The challenge now is translating these elections into accountable democratic governance that addresses the grievances of all Tunisians.

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