TUNIS, TUNISIA – Tunisians will choose Sunday from no fewer than 26 candidates in the country’s second democratic presidential elections — moved up several weeks by July’s death of President Beji Caid Essebsi.
But this first round, which precedes legislative elections and a likely runoff presidential vote, will take place against the backdrop of a stagnating economy and a sense that the country’s 2011 “Jasmine” revolution has failed to deliver on its promise.
The experience of final Friday night rallies in downtown Tunis was a bit like going candidate shopping. Crowds backing the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party packed one section of the iconic Habib Bourguiba Avenue, dancing and waving flags.
Farther down were supporters of leftist candidates Hamam Hammami and Mongi Rahoui.
Supporters of leftist candidate Mongi Rahoui dance at a final rally, in Tunis, Tunisia, Sept. 13, 2019.(L. Bryant/VOA)
And finally, fans of businessman Nabil Karoui, considered a strong contender despite — and maybe partly because of — his being detained on corruption charges.
Posters lining the streets of the capital offered a dizzying choice, identifying candidates by number, 1 to 26, as well as by name. University student Fellah Ferchichi, 25, couldn’t decide whom to vote for.
“You have three or four people all the same, like [Prime Minister] Youssef Chahed is the top one now, and you have Kais Said,” Ferchichi said. “And especially you have a woman, like Selma Loumi [Rekik].”
Businesswoman Mouna Belaid was voting for female candidate Abir Moussi, one of two female candidates and a supporter of ousted autocratic President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. Belaid likes Moussi’s platform — and the idea of having Tunisia’s first female president.
But there’s another strong contender: disaffection. Tunisia’s economy is struggling. Unemployment is soaring. Along some streets, uncollected garbage piles up on broken sidewalks.
“I don’t know whom to vote for — they’re all the same,” said Alia Sitou, 57. “All of them say they’re going to create jobs and good things for youth. But there’s nothing, and the cafes are full of young men with diplomas and no jobs.
“This first round is very important for the future … not only the future of the race, but also the future of Tunisia,” said Hamadi Redissi, head of the Tunisian Observatory for Democratic Transition outside Tunis. People are angry their lives haven’t improved since the revolution, eight years ago, and “that’s why the political elite and classic political parties are discredited, definitely discredited. Probably the Islamists will be discredited in these election.”
Ennahdha supporters are pictured at a rally, Sept. 13, 2019, in Tunis, Tunisia. (L. Bryant/VOA)
That means the main Islamist party, Ennahda, which has been in coalition governments since 2011. It’s fielding Abdelfattah Mourou, 71, as its first presidential candidate.
Deputy scientific research minister Khalil Amiri, part of the campaign team, said, “We are very conscious time is running out and patience is running out … and that’s why our program … has focused primarily on questions of regional development, economic governance [and] providing opportunities for everyone.”
Priorities are the same for other candidates. But some pooorer voters are especially connecting with business tycoon Nabil Karoui, whose charitable work is well covered by his Nessma TV station. Supporters like campaign team member Samy Achour say tax evasion and money laundering charges against Karoui are politically motivated.
People show support for Nabil Karoui at a final rally in Tunis, Tunisia, Sept. 13, 2019. (L. Bryant/VOA)
“He has traveled all over the country for the past 3½ years, from north to south, east to west,” Achour said. “And he listened to the people and he understood their issues and he knows what it takes to make a difference.”
The one thing certain about Sunday’s election is — it’s wide open.