Transitions

There’s No Right Choice in Tunisia’s Presidential Election

On Sunday, Nov. 23, Tunisians voted in their first democratic presidential election. None of the candidates won a majority, so a second round is scheduled to take place next month. But it’s already clear that the race to the finish line is going to be very, very close. To nobody’s surprise, veteran politician Beji Caid ...

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, Nov. 23, Tunisians voted in their first democratic presidential election. None of the candidates won a majority, so a second round is scheduled to take place next month. But it’s already clear that the race to the finish line is going to be very, very close.

To nobody’s surprise, veteran politician Beji Caid Essebsi came in first with 39.46 percent of the popular vote, followed by incumbent interim president Moncef Marzouki, who secured 33.43 percent. Essebsi is the leader of the secular Nida Tounes movement, which includes many political figures from the pre-revolutionary era, while Marzouki and his party have a more solid record of opposition to the dictatorship that ruled Tunisia until 2011. Marzouki’s party, the Congress for the Republic (CPR), is known for its hostility to former regime figures and its sympathy to the more conservative faction of Tunisian society, a group of voters that helped Marzouki secure the second place in the first round of the presidential election. However, the party has seen its popularity shrink over recent years, as it went from winning 29 seats in 2011 election to getting just four seats in last month’s legislative poll. Were it not for the (sometimes tacit) support of Islamists, it would have been difficult for Marzouki to make it to the runoff. It remains to be seen if Marzouki will be able to gain the support of more Tunisians to get reelected.

The difference between the share of the popular vote won by the two front-runners is about 6 percent. Each candidate is backed by a base of staunch supporters. All this guarantees that the two men are likely to remain neck and neck right up until the December poll. (In the photo above, two Tunisian women puzzle over the vote’s outcome the day after the election.)

On Election Day, Lamjed Riahi, a 65-year-old taxi driver, broke his daily habit of going to his local café to sip his morning espresso and catch up with friends. Instead, he took his wife and headed to the polling station near his house in Beb Jdid, in the capital Tunis, so that they could cast their ballots and play a role in choosing the next Tunisian president.

Riahi is a retired primary school teacher who was forced to take another job after retirement because his salary wasn’t enough to provide for himself, his stay-at-home wife, and his three unemployed daughters. "My three daughters graduated from university a few years ago and the three of them are unemployed," he told me. "The oldest is getting married next spring. She doesn’t have a job, so I have to take care of her share of the wedding expenses."

Riahi told me he voted for Essebsi, the 87-year-old politician who held several key positions in the pre-revolutionary regime. His political career spans the period from the 1950s, when he served under Tunisia’s first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba, to the recent present. He served as interim prime minister in the first transitional period following the Jan. 14, 2011, uprising that overthrew Tunisia’s authoritarian leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

"I am voting for Essebsi so we can save what is left and don’t lose everything," Riahi added. "We thought the revolution would bring hope and justice. But instead the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer."

Lamjed Riahi is no exception. Many Tunisians share this sentiment of frustration and disappointment. The Islamist-led government that came to power after the first post-revolutionary election three years ago got caught up in ideological bickering with their opponents and failed to tackle pressing issues such as unemployment, poverty, and inflation.

The failure of the Troika, the tripartite coalition between the Islamist Ennahda party and two other centrist parties (including Marzouki’s Congress of the Republic), to address people’s social and economic concerns made it easier for their strong rival Nida Tounes to win a plurality in last month’s parliamentary election. Nida Tounes, formed by Essebsi in July 2012, is a heterogeneous party that brings together trade unionists, secular and progressive political activists, and "counterrevolutionary" figures associated with Tunisia’s autocratic leaders, Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Both men were notorious for their lack of respect for human rights and their hostility to Islamists. "I know that Essebsi isn’t necessarily a democratic politician," Riahi told me. "People say that he is corrupt and that he tortured Bourguiba’s opponents in the past. But there is no ideal candidate."

Many of those who support Nida Tounes and Essebsi’s candidacy do so out of despair over the scarcity of options. Moreover, Nida Tounes presents itself as the party that has the know-how to run the country, in contrast to the Islamist leaders who spent the past decades in exile or jail.

"We need a real leader who can act during times of crises like Essebsi," Riahi told me. "We don’t have time for someone to throw flowers in the sea like Marzouki." He was referring to the time when President Marzouki cast a batch of flowers off a ship in memory of a group of young Tunisian men who vanished in the Mediterranean when they were trying to migrate illegally to the Italian island of Lampedusa. There was nothing especially wrong with Marzouki’s well-intentioned gesture, which exemplified his sometimes sentimental populism, but people expect more from government officials than helpless empathy.

Yosra Tlili, a 35-year-old engineer, said she was opting for Essebsi because she wanted to make sure she put her vote to use. "I love Hamma because he’s a brave and impressive activist," she told me. "But this is no time for emotions." Tlili was referring to Hamma Hammami, the candidate of the leftist Popular Front, a long-time political activist who is also married to Radhia Nasraoui, a renowned anti-torture activist. However, Hamma came in third with only 7.8 percent of the popular vote, excluding him from the second round. "Our country is facing chaos and terrorism," Tlili told me. "We need Nida to put the country back on track."

While some people seem relatively unconcerned about the return of figures from the pre-revolutionary system, and express a willingness to sacrifice some of their newly gained freedoms for the sake of security and promised economic prosperity, others still prefer a chaotic post-revolution Tunisia to the ghost of the former regime. "My brother went to jail and was prevented from graduating from university because he was a religious kid," Kamel told me. "I don’t want that to happen again." Kamel (who declined to give me his first name) was standing in line to vote in the Rue de Marseille polling station in downtown Tunis.

"I’m going to vote for Marzouki because he’s a humble man, not like Essebsi and his clan. I know he may not be the most qualified president but at least he doesn’t hate Islamists."

Marzouki’s supporters tend to view him as someone closer to the people — or, as Kamel put it, "he’s not haggar." Haggar is a widely used Tunisian term for "arrogant," used for those who treat the less fortunate with disdain and contempt. "Essebsi is nothing but a new Ben Ali who will keep the poor poor and build new fancy restaurants in the northern suburb," Kamel said, referring to the upscale northern fringe of Tunis, which is home to Essebsi as well as other members of the capital’s well-to-do.

Next month, Tunisians will find themselves facing hard choices. It seems that most Tunisians have reservations about both candidates. Nevertheless, people are forced to choose between two bad alternatives: an elderly remnant of the former regime, associated with decades of oppression, and an ineffective president who stands as a reminder of the failure of the Troika years.

Asma Ghribi is the Tunisia blogger for Transitions, and tweets @AsmaGhribi. Read the rest of her posts here.

On Sunday, Nov. 23, Tunisians voted in their first democratic presidential election. None of the candidates won a majority, so a second round is scheduled to take place next month. But it’s already clear that the race to the finish line is going to be very, very close.

To nobody’s surprise, veteran politician Beji Caid Essebsi came in first with 39.46 percent of the popular vote, followed by incumbent interim president Moncef Marzouki, who secured 33.43 percent. Essebsi is the leader of the secular Nida Tounes movement, which includes many political figures from the pre-revolutionary era, while Marzouki and his party have a more solid record of opposition to the dictatorship that ruled Tunisia until 2011. Marzouki’s party, the Congress for the Republic (CPR), is known for its hostility to former regime figures and its sympathy to the more conservative faction of Tunisian society, a group of voters that helped Marzouki secure the second place in the first round of the presidential election. However, the party has seen its popularity shrink over recent years, as it went from winning 29 seats in 2011 election to getting just four seats in last month’s legislative poll. Were it not for the (sometimes tacit) support of Islamists, it would have been difficult for Marzouki to make it to the runoff. It remains to be seen if Marzouki will be able to gain the support of more Tunisians to get reelected.

The difference between the share of the popular vote won by the two front-runners is about 6 percent. Each candidate is backed by a base of staunch supporters. All this guarantees that the two men are likely to remain neck and neck right up until the December poll. (In the photo above, two Tunisian women puzzle over the vote’s outcome the day after the election.)

On Election Day, Lamjed Riahi, a 65-year-old taxi driver, broke his daily habit of going to his local café to sip his morning espresso and catch up with friends. Instead, he took his wife and headed to the polling station near his house in Beb Jdid, in the capital Tunis, so that they could cast their ballots and play a role in choosing the next Tunisian president.

Riahi is a retired primary school teacher who was forced to take another job after retirement because his salary wasn’t enough to provide for himself, his stay-at-home wife, and his three unemployed daughters. "My three daughters graduated from university a few years ago and the three of them are unemployed," he told me. "The oldest is getting married next spring. She doesn’t have a job, so I have to take care of her share of the wedding expenses."

Riahi told me he voted for Essebsi, the 87-year-old politician who held several key positions in the pre-revolutionary regime. His political career spans the period from the 1950s, when he served under Tunisia’s first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba, to the recent present. He served as interim prime minister in the first transitional period following the Jan. 14, 2011, uprising that overthrew Tunisia’s authoritarian leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

"I am voting for Essebsi so we can save what is left and don’t lose everything," Riahi added. "We thought the revolution would bring hope and justice. But instead the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer."

Lamjed Riahi is no exception. Many Tunisians share this sentiment of frustration and disappointment. The Islamist-led government that came to power after the first post-revolutionary election three years ago got caught up in ideological bickering with their opponents and failed to tackle pressing issues such as unemployment, poverty, and inflation.

The failure of the Troika, the tripartite coalition between the Islamist Ennahda party and two other centrist parties (including Marzouki’s Congress of the Republic), to address people’s social and economic concerns made it easier for their strong rival Nida Tounes to win a plurality in last month’s parliamentary election. Nida Tounes, formed by Essebsi in July 2012, is a heterogeneous party that brings together trade unionists, secular and progressive political activists, and "counterrevolutionary" figures associated with Tunisia’s autocratic leaders, Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Both men were notorious for their lack of respect for human rights and their hostility to Islamists. "I know that Essebsi isn’t necessarily a democratic politician," Riahi told me. "People say that he is corrupt and that he tortured Bourguiba’s opponents in the past. But there is no ideal candidate."

Many of those who support Nida Tounes and Essebsi’s candidacy do so out of despair over the scarcity of options. Moreover, Nida Tounes presents itself as the party that has the know-how to run the country, in contrast to the Islamist leaders who spent the past decades in exile or jail.

"We need a real leader who can act during times of crises like Essebsi," Riahi told me. "We don’t have time for someone to throw flowers in the sea like Marzouki." He was referring to the time when President Marzouki cast a batch of flowers off a ship in memory of a group of young Tunisian men who vanished in the Mediterranean when they were trying to migrate illegally to the Italian island of Lampedusa. There was nothing especially wrong with Marzouki’s well-intentioned gesture, which exemplified his sometimes sentimental populism, but people expect more from government officials than helpless empathy.

Yosra Tlili, a 35-year-old engineer, said she was opting for Essebsi because she wanted to make sure she put her vote to use. "I love Hamma because he’s a brave and impressive activist," she told me. "But this is no time for emotions." Tlili was referring to Hamma Hammami, the candidate of the leftist Popular Front, a long-time political activist who is also married to Radhia Nasraoui, a renowned anti-torture activist. However, Hamma came in third with only 7.8 percent of the popular vote, excluding him from the second round. "Our country is facing chaos and terrorism," Tlili told me. "We need Nida to put the country back on track."

While some people seem relatively unconcerned about the return of figures from the pre-revolutionary system, and express a willingness to sacrifice some of their newly gained freedoms for the sake of security and promised economic prosperity, others still prefer a chaotic post-revolution Tunisia to the ghost of the former regime. "My brother went to jail and was prevented from graduating from university because he was a religious kid," Kamel told me. "I don’t want that to happen again." Kamel (who declined to give me his first name) was standing in line to vote in the Rue de Marseille polling station in downtown Tunis.

"I’m going to vote for Marzouki because he’s a humble man, not like Essebsi and his clan. I know he may not be the most qualified president but at least he doesn’t hate Islamists."

Marzouki’s supporters tend to view him as someone closer to the people — or, as Kamel put it, "he’s not haggar." Haggar is a widely used Tunisian term for "arrogant," used for those who treat the less fortunate with disdain and contempt. "Essebsi is nothing but a new Ben Ali who will keep the poor poor and build new fancy restaurants in the northern suburb," Kamel said, referring to the upscale northern fringe of Tunis, which is home to Essebsi as well as other members of the capital’s well-to-do.

Next month, Tunisians will find themselves facing hard choices. It seems that most Tunisians have reservations about both candidates. Nevertheless, people are forced to choose between two bad alternatives: an elderly remnant of the former regime, associated with decades of oppression, and an ineffective president who stands as a reminder of the failure of the Troika years.

Asma Ghribi is the Tunisia blogger for Transitions, and tweets @AsmaGhribi. Read the rest of her posts here.

Asma Ghribi is a journalist and researcher focusing on Tunisia. Follow her on twitter at @AsmaGhribi.

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