The first round of the presidential race in Tunisia is going to be held in four months, followed by a runoff between the two candidates with the most votes with the largest number of votes, if no candidate gains a majority of over 50 per cent. This article raises a number of issues about the future President, the role of opinion polls in shaping people’s political preferences, the possible chances of so-called “independent candidates”, the impact of Ennahda’s candidate in shaking things up, and the possible repercussions of the newly elected President on government formation. In fact, a strong government enjoying an overwhelming majority in Parliament is needed to launch major public projects and introduce essential economic and social reforms. During the third Ennahdha Party Annual Conference, the head of the party’s consultative Council, Abdelkarim Harouni, stated that after the relative success of the democratic transition or what he calls a positive response to revolutionary demands, the government should launch its platform for reform. In the same vein, Rached Ghannouchi, the President of Ennahdha Party, publicly called for a scheme aimed at economically empowering poor and marginalized groups in interior regions and introducing a new electoral platform based on social and economy solidarity platform to achieve the goals of the revolution. Observers portray this change as a U-turn in the party’s social policy.
The presidential race
The 2014 Constitution stipulates major shifts of power from the President of the Republic to Parliament. Such reforms have reduced the President’s potential abuse of power. As spelled out in article 77, his or her role is limited to “determining general policy orientations in the domain of defence, foreign relations and national security”. He also has minor responsibilities such as chairing the Council of Ministers when attending, ratifying treaties and ordering their publication, and appointing a third of the members of the Constitutional Court. Despite these changes in presidential powers, Tunisians seem to be fixated on the presidency because of its symbolic power in autocratic governments during the sixty years since independence.
Contentious debate has arisen over proposals to amend the Constitution and reform the political system. The government was sceptical of such attempts, describing them as underpinning the Constitution. Candidates vying for the presidency are well-aware of its symbolic significance domestically and internationally. However, candidates should keep in mind that among the President’s key responsibilities is to protect the Constitution and secure the continuity of the democratic process, as well as working to unify Tunisians, which means overcoming exclusion and polarization.
Once Beji Caid Essebsi, the former President, declined to announce his candidacy for a second presidential term for various reasons, many candidates declared their interest in the race. They may be classified into three categories: independents, party candidates and representatives of party coalitions. In the last two categories, we have Moncef Marzouki, the former President, Kamel Morjene, the head of the political bureau of Tahya Tounes Party, Youssef Chahed, the current Prime Minister, any potential nominee of Ennahda Party, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, the nominee of the Willing Coalition, Mohammed Abbou, a candidate for the Social Democratic Party or Attayar, Seifedine Makhlouf, candidate for the Dignity coalition or El Karama. Abir Moussi, a nominee for the Free Dousterian Party, and Abid Al-Briki, the leader of the Mouvement Tunisie en Avant or Tunisia Forward Party. The Popular Front, a broad church of the left has been divided and may nominate Hamma Hammami, Monji Rahoui. Last and not least, Nabil Karoui, a nominee for Qalb Tunis or the Heart of Tunisia Party, and Olfa Terrass, Ich Tounsi who may run for the presidency unless proposed amendments to the electoral law are passed by Parliament, which would rule them out due to their use of NGO or charitable funding.
Regarding self-identified-independent candidates, we note in particular Kais Saied, Hammadi Jebali, Safi Saied, Mustapha Ben Jaffar (a potential nominee of the Ettakattol Party), Abdel Karim Zebidi or Habib Essid, the latter two being potential candidates of some behind the scenes political forces.
The influence of Opinion Polls
There have been various public debates in Tunisia in recent years on the role of opinion polls’ in manipulating and influencing public opinion. As a response, some political parties dynamic forces such as the political parties and civil society organisations suggested establishing regulatory and standard-setting bodies to regulate the work of polling companies and monitor allegations of manipulation. Reservations are also expressed regarding data mining and the sampling techniques used in polls. In addition, opinion polls can influence voting intention through the bandwagon effect, where voters decide to support those candidates who appear to be the ‘winner’ regardless of their positions. As such, polls provide good marketing for newcomers, who are propelled into the limelight by these polls.
Given its relatively large support base, an Ennahdha candidate, whether from inside or outside the party, has a good chance to qualify for the second round of the presidential race. If the Party decides to support a candidate from outside its own leadership who also enjoys broad support from Destourian and progressive forces and an endorsement from the UGTT, he or she is likely to hold a comfortable lead over rivals. Chahed seems to be a high-potential candidate if he is backed by Destourian forces, and could potentially be the candidate of a large coalition including Ennahdha, the Destourians and the UGTT, which would be mutually beneficial. However, Ennahdha would not be able to support him if he is nominated by his own party Tahya Tounes, or some Destourian parties. The same applies to Morjen.
With respect to Marzouki, Abbou , Jebali and Ben Jaafar, they all appear to have slim chances of winning the election. If Ennahdha supports one of these candidates, with the support of its large electoral machine, this is likely to affect the outcome. However, Ennhadha seems to be, driven by strategic calculations, cautious in its choice of a suitable candidate, and it might find it difficult to support a candidate from outside its own leadership.
The upcoming election is significant as it will shape the next five years of Tunisia’s democratic transition. It is expected that there will be stiff competition between the major candidates. Ennahdha Party is likely to have a decisive role, although it has not yet declared its candidate. It is showing its usual cautiousness, searching for a candidate who will initiate and introduce the necessary reforms to guarantee the success of the democratic transition.
The Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies is a research institution covering a large regional territory, including the Maghreb, Africa and Mediterranean countries, with a focus on Tunisian affairs. The Center has two main headquarters in London and Tunisia.