On Sunday Tunisian voters will head to the ballot boxes to elect their president. If no candidate nabs more than 50% of the vote, a run-off will be held on December 26. For all intents and purposes, it is a two-man race: five candidates have dropped out, leaving Beji Caid Essebsi, head of the leading secular party Nida Tounes, and outgoing President Moncef Marzouki as the front-runners.
This vote may be less important than the legislative elections held on October 26, which saw Nida Tounes win the most seats (85). Namely because the presidency is in many ways a figurehead position. Nonetheless, the stakes are high. Tunsia is recovering from a prolonged period of political instability, a resurgence of extremist violence, and economic precarity that took hold in the wake of the Arab Spring and the ouster of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Ennahda, the Islamist party that swept the first elections following Ben Ali’s ouster, has taken a lot of flack for Tunisia’s current instability. (Ennahda largely exacerbated the security crisis in the country, adopting a lax approach to radical Islamist groups in an attempt to maintain its conservative voter base, alienating moderate voters in the process.) Given the backlash – Ennahda was forced to step down this January, ceding to an interim technocratic government – it’s no wonder the Islamist party chose not to field a presidential candidate, preferring to “concentrate uniquely on the legislative elections,” according to party spokesman Zied Ladhari.
Perhaps. Much has been made of Marzouki’s reported loyalties to Ennahda – an affiliation that looks to be hurting rather than helping the current president. Two days before the ballot, Essebsi is the favorite and leading by five points. However, there are concerns that Essebsi is not the face of a new Tunisia as his campaign proclaims, but rather a vestige of the old guard. (Essebsi served as parliament speaker under Ben Ali). Marzouki’s camp has been quick to build on such allegations, calling his opponent a successor to the ousted former president.
Tunis needs a clean and clear victory. Notably to cement a transition to secular democracy that, while turbulent, has nonetheless been more reassuring than that of Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, for example. More importantly, perhaps, Tunisia must reassure wary foreign investors and make new allies in order to boost its stagnant economy. Not to mention reinvigorate a populace weary after nearly four years of political see-sawing and extremist violence. There is room for optimism here. Despite fears of widespread voter apathy, turnout for October’s legislative elections was a reported 60%. There may also be room for coalition-building, thanks to unprecedented dialogue between Ennahda and secular parties, including stalwarts from the Ben Ali regime. That Nida Tounes is in the conversation at all is equally significant – Tunisia’s parliament rejected a law that would bar former Ben Ali regime officials from participating in the political process, heralding a more inclusive system.
Now, international attention is focused on Tunisia, in the hopes of seeing a long-lauded model of democratic stability in the Arab world emerge. In an op-ed published by the New York Times on Wednesday, Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi insists that a “new Tunisia” has emerged, “in which politics is pluralistic, our differences are resolved through mediation, and no individual party monopolizes authority.” With the national economy still mired down, amid signs of intensifying terrorist activity, it remains to be seen if Essebsi – or Marzouki, if he manages a last minute rebound – can live up to the hype.