Tunisia, presidential election goes to runoff

On November 23, Tunisians voted in their first democratic presidential elections since the country gained independence from France in 1956. Before the Arab spring uprisings in 2011, the country had been led by only two presidents: Habib Bourguiba, who is considered Tunisia’s modern founding father, and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ousted after the 2011 uprisings.

An estimated 63 percent of Tunisia’s registered voters turned out to vote one of the 25 candidates running the elections, however, none of the candidates managed to gain the majority of votes, sending the elections into a run-off scheduled for December[1]. Two important figures of the Tunisian political landscape will compete for the presidency: the veteran politician Béji Caïd Essebsi, who came first with 39.46 percent of the popular vote, followed by the interim president and human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, who collected 33.43 percent of votes.

Essebsi is the leading figure of the secular Nidaa Tounès movement. Nidaa Tounès, whose name means “the Call of Tunisia” in English, was formed in 2012 to contrast the leading role of the Islamist movement Ennahda, that has had a fundamental role in shaping Tunisia’s political transition after to the Arab Spring’s uprisings. This party already had secured the majority of seats in the Tunisian Parliament after the elections held in October. These previous elections had been widely considered the first true test of Tunisian democracy. Its leader, Essebsi, is a veteran of Tunisian politics, as he covered many leading roles in previous governments: in the early 1990s, under Bourguiba, he was a government advisor, subsequently appointed as Minister of both Foreign Affairs and Defense. When Ben Ali was elected, Essebsi became the President of the Tunisian Parliament. But, when the government started turning into a dictatorship, he decided to leave the political scene, returning only in 2011, after Ben Ali’s removal. He was then appointed interim Prime Minister [2].

On one hand, Essebsi’s party has been strongly criticized for having included many pre-revolutionary era politicians, the so-called “old regime”. On the other hand, Marzouki and his party, the Congress for the Republic (CPR), are known for their hostility to the regime that ruled Tunisia until 2011. Despite of this fact, Marzouki managed to secure the second position and the participation to the run-off. The party has also been experiencing a significant decrease in terms of popularity over the recent years. This trend is clearly demonstrated by the electoral results: if in 2011 the CPR won 29 seats, it secured just four seats in the last November legislative elections. Without the support of Islamists, it would have been difficult for Marzouki to achieve this result and it remains to be seen if he will be able to gain the support of more Tunisians in order to be reelected [3].

Before the announcement of the presidential results, Essebsi harshly condemned Marzouki, accusing Ennahda of supporting him despite its public declaration of neutrality in candidates’ support. ”We need to know that those who voted for Marzouki are the Islamists who were organized to vote for him,” he told RMC, a French radio station. It is almost certain that Marzouki enjoyed support from Islamists even if there has not been any public endorsement from Ennahda[4].

Essebsi’s critics stress the fact that the candidate, who turns 88 this month, is too old to rule the country and they have compared him with the 77-year-old Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has not been seen in public since his reelection in April. According to the news site France TV Info, Marzouki replied by declaring “They say I am sick! Would you like me to take my clothes off? Would you like to examine me?”[5].

The Nidaa Tounès’ leader, in another interview at France 24, presented his party as a counterweight of the Islamist Ennahda, stating that: “[Marzouki] is a respectable man, since he was the interim president for three years […]. If he obtained this result, it is because he was primarily supported by Ennahda officials” [6].

Indeed, Zied Ladhari, the Ennahda’s spokesperson, affirmed that the party would not have officially backed a presidential candidate in order to avoid domination of the political landscape. However it is more likely that Ennahda’s supporters would vote in favor of Moncef Marzouki which there is an alliance since 2011[7].

Since the candidate for the leftist Popular Front movement, Hamma Hammami, came third with almost 8 percent of the votes, the Popular Front coalition will back one of the two rivals but the party has not yet announced who will be supported in this second round. However, it is unlikely that Marzouki will be backed due to his ties to Ennahda. According to some analysts, if the party and the supporters of the other candidates will back Marzouki, there would be the possibility for him to close the gap with Essebsi. These tensions are exacerbated by the little distance between the two candidates which make this runoff well closer than expected. It has reopened the strong tensions and divisions within the Tunisian society, namely between secularists and Islamists. This could hamper the voices in favor of a national unity government between the two main blocs in Parliament: Nidaa Tounès and Ennahda [8].

Despite the clashes that broke out during the parliamentary elections held in October and the consequent fear of a terrorist attack, national and international observers declared the election process. Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck, the head of the European Union’s election observation mission, defined the vote “pluralist and transparent”. She also declared: “the exercise of freedom of expression and assembly was guaranteed,” and “the majority of the irregularities were minor” [9].

However, the observers noted that the majority of Tunisia’s youths did not participate to the electoral process due to their concerns over a country that, despite having a high proportion of young people register about 30% of youth unemployment rate, which is one of the most determinant elements that led to the uprising against Ben Ali. Young people don’t recognize themselves in a political landscape which does not reflect the ambitions they expressed in 2011. After the uprising there where high expectations in terms of economic and social improvement, but unemployment is still high (almost 15 percent) and the rate is double when referring to young people.

Anissa Bouasker, communications officer for the Tunisian Association for the Integrity and Democracy of elections (ATIDE) spoke to VICE News after the elections. She highlighted that abstention is higher in towns “that provided the revolution with the most martyrs,” such as Sidi Bouzid, where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire [10].

Preferences over the Tunisian political future have been gradually changing: a 2014 report by Pew Global revealed that 59% of Tunisians say they “should rely on a leader with a strong hand to solve their country’s problems”. There has been a significant decline in support for a democratic government (from 54% to 43%), coupled with a steady increase in preference for a good economic situation that would create financial opportunities and enable small businesses to grow [11].

This final electoral round will be a decisive turning point in the country where the Arab uprisings started: the Secularists-Islamists opposition and the close competition between Essebsi and Manzouki could undermine the possibility to create a government of national unity that would adopt policies aimed at ensuring economic and political stability. Tunisian citizens demand better living and working conditions since the beginning of the revolution that expelled the President Ben Ali, but the government failed in ensuring the required standards. As a result these elections have been characterized by a high percentage of abstentions amongst young people and the next Tunisian President will have to consider this factor in the future initiatives to undertake all over the country. The first democratic example in the region, as defined by experts and analysts, is to overcome many difficulties and to gain popular support, in order to become effective and accountable.



Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)




[1] Melodie BouchaudTunisia’s first presidential elections since the Arab Spring are headed to a runoff, “VICE News”, 26 November 26, 2014 – https://news.vice.com/article/tunisias-first-presidential-elections-since-the-arab-spring-are-headed-to-a-run-off.

[2] Gaël Cogné, Tunisie : qui est Béji Caïd Essebsi, le favori de la présidentielle ?, “France TV Info”, 24 November 2014 – http://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/tunisie/elections/tunisie-qui-est-beji-caid-essebsi-le-favori-de-la-presidentielle_736561.html.

[3] Asma Ghribi, There’s no right choice in Tunisia’s presidential election, “Foreign Policy”, 26 November 2014 – http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/11/26/theres-no-right-choice-in-tunisias-presidential-election/.

[4] Carlotta Gall, Runoff will decide President of Tunisia, “The New York Times”, 25 November 2014 – http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/26/world/africa/tunisia-presidential-election-to-be-decided-in-runoff.html?_r=0.

[5] Gaël Cogné, Tunisie : qui est Béji Caïd Essebsi, le favori de la présidentielle ?, “FranceTVInfo”, 24 November 2014 – http://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/tunisie/elections/tunisie-qui-est-beji-caid-essebsi-le-favori-de-la-presidentielle_736561.html.

[6] Anon., Le Président d’Ennahda m’a félicité de la victoire de Nidaa Tounès, “France 24”, 27 October 2014 – http://www.france24.com/fr/20141027-video-president-ennahda-felicite-victoire-nidaa-tounes-beji-caid-essebsi-tunisie-legislatives/.

[7] Anon., Tunisie : Ennahdha ne présentera pas de candidat à la présidentielle, “Jeune Afrique”, 7 September 2014 – http://www.jeuneafrique.com/Article/DEPAFP20140907172000/.

[8] Carlotta Gall, Runoff will decide President of Tunisia, “The New York Times”, 25 November 2014 – http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/26/world/africa/tunisia-presidential-election-to-be-decided-in-runoff.html?_r=0.

[9] Melodie BouchaudTunisia’s first presidential elections since the Arab Spring are headed to a run-off, “VICE News”, 26 November 26, 2014 – https://news.vice.com/article/tunisias-first-presidential-elections-since-the-arab-spring-are-headed-to-a-run-off.

[10] Melodie Bouchaud, Election tests fledgling democracy in Tunisia after Arab Spring, “VICE News”, 28 October 2014 – https://news.vice.com/article/election-tests-fledgling-democracy-in-tunisia-after-arab-spring.

[11] Anon., Tunisian confidence in democracy wanes, “Pew Research Center”, 14 October 2014 – http://www.pewglobal.org/2014/10/15/tunisian-confidence-in-democracy-wanes/tunisia-report-12/.

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