A staggering number of candidates had put their names forward for the early presidential election by the deadline for registration on 9 August, which was triggered by the death of the President, Beji Caid Essebssi. The Independent Higher Electoral Commission (IHEC) received about a hundred candidacies (87 male candidates and 11 female candidates) – a high figure in a small country like Tunisia with an estimated population of just under 12 million. Although the number of the candidates who fulfilled all official criteria and procedures has been whittled down to 26, the rush of candidates was a shock for Tunisians. This phenomenon has been explained through many factors, including rivalry between prominent revolutionary figures, a narcissistic insistence by party leaders on standing for election rather than building alliances, and the large number of political parties.
Party-backed candidates and Independents
The initial 100 candidates were reduced to 26 as many dropped out of the race and some were found not to be eligible for candidacy for various reasons such as failure to secure the required 10,000 signatures, and failure to pay the deposit of 10,000 dinars. The Independent Higher Electoral Commission (IHEC) retained 26 candidates including just two women, Salma Elloumi and Abir Moussi.
There were some surprising changes to the final candidate list, such as Mr. Mustapha Ben Jaafar, the head of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA, 2011-2014), who had issued a statement declaring his candidacy; and Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, who was unable to collect the required number of signatures. Surprisingly, former Minister, Kamel Morjene, thought to be a strong potential candidate, did not come forward, probably due to his decision to join Tahya Tounes, which nominated Mr. Youssef Chahed as its presidential candidate.
Mustapha Kamel Nebli, former bank governor, and Ahmed Friaa, a former minister, also failed to stand, which came as a surprise to many observers.
Candidates may be distributed in terms of their party affiliation or “independent status” as follows:
Six-teen party candidates (14 male candidates and only two women)
Abdel Fatteh Mourou: Ennahdha Party
Youssef Chahed: Tahya Tounis
Moncef Marzouki: Al-Hirak Party
Mohammed Abbou: Attayar
Salma Elloumi: Amal Tounes Party
Mehdi Jemaa: Al Badil Ettounsi Party
Mohsen Marzouk: El Machrou
Mohamed Lotfi El Mraihi: Union Populaire Républicaine Party
Mohamed Al-Hechmi Hamdi: Tayyar Al-Mahabba
Nabil Karoui: Qalb Tounis Party
Abir Moussi: The Free Doustourian Party
Abid Briki: Mouvement Tunisie en Avant or Tunisia Forward Party
Monji Rahoui: Popular Front
Elyess Fakhfekh: Ettakattol Party
Slim Riahi: The Free Patriotic Union
Said Aydi: Bani Watani Party
What is interesting is the absence of nominees on behalf of Nidaa Tounes, Harakat Chaab (the People's Movement), Al-Joumhouri (the Republican Party), and Al-Masar, which are all well-known parties. It is widely known that Nidaa Tounes supports Zebidi, which they have made clear in various public statements, although they have not yet publicly endorsed him as a party.
Ten individuals are running for presidency as independents.
Abdel Karim Zebidi, Hammadi Jebali, Hamma Hammami, Mohamed Sghair Nouri, Kais Saied, Amed Safi Said, Neji Jelloul, Hatem Boulabiar, Seif Eddine Makhlouf, and Omar Mansour.
Striking among these is Hamma Hammami's decision to run for presidency as an independent, although he is the official spokesman for the Popular Front, a coalition of left-wing parties, and the leader of the Workers’ Party. This is due to splits the Popular Current and the Workers’ Party, which are supportive of Hamma Hammami, and the Baath, Attalia and Al-Watad Parties, which support Mongi Rahoui.
A second observation is that some candidates did not run in the name of coalitions, despite the presence of some candidates belonging to coalitions, such as Marzouki, Jebali, and Briki.
Classification by political and intellectual affiliation
A closer analysis of the candidates’ list shows they can be distributed into six major ideological schools.
- Eight candidates regard themselves as the heirs of Bourguibism or the Destourian movement: Chahed, Marzouk, Karoui, Jelloul, Aydi, Mraihi, and Moussi.
- There are a number of candidates with an Islamic tendency, as follows: Mourou, Jebali, Boulabiar, Hamdi, and Makhlouf.
- The far left nominated four contenders: Rahoui, Hammami, Briki, and probably Fakhfekh.
- Nationalists: Said
- The center-left school has four candidates: Marzouki, Abbou, Nouri and possibly Saied.
- The Liberal Right is represented by Riahi as independent of the above mentioned schools.
- Technocratic candidates Zbidi, Jemoaa and Mansour – represent the final school who are mainly economically liberal.
Chances: who is likely to make it to the second round?
Since Ennahda and the Destourian movements remain the strongest in government, this section addresses these schools. Regarding Ennahda, if the party manages to unite and mobilize its rank-and- file activists to vote for Mourou, he is likely to proceed to the second round. In contrast, the Destourian movements are refusing to support one candidate, and Zbidi and Chahed are likely to gain the most support among Destourian candidates. We can also expect strong competition from Karoui.
Although the head of the state is supposed to unite the country beyond regional affiliations, according to observers, regional factors may have a strong impact on voting behaviour. Three groups are particularly influential: the Sahel, the Beldia (inhabitants of Medina of Tunis), and Sfax. While the Sahel region is represented by four candidates (Jebali, Zebidi, Jelloul and Jemoaa), the Beldia are represented by Chahed, Mourou, Aydi, Mansour and Boulabiar. Sfax also has strong representation, with four candidates from Sfax (Fakhfekh, Elloumi, Marzouk, and Makhlouf).
Mourou is being touted as a possible future president as he has more chances to unite the large Islamic movements, while support within the Destourian school is split between three candidates, namely Chahed, Zbidi and Karoui. If they fail to coordinate their efforts, they risk losing the chance to proceed to the second round.
Two candidates in particular, Karoui and Saied, seem to be increasing their support bases as they try to capitalize on growing discontent and hatred of political parties and the status quo. Moussi, while using strongly anti-establishment rhetoric, has few chances to capitalize on disaffection as she shows absolute contempt for the revolution, the constitution and the budding democratic transition. While this discourse will appeal to a small section of the electorate, this strongly counter-revolutionary rhetoric is widely resisted both domestically and internationally.
A number of regional and international powers have shown genuine concern for the success of the Tunisian transition and have attempted to reinforce dialogue and consensus between the two major parties, Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha. However, other external forces have worked to hinder or even abort the transition.
Foreign support, mainly from the US, Europe and Algeria and some parts of the Arab and Islamic worlds, is needed in order to limit the pressure of counter-revolutionary powers. Tunisia is important for the stability of Algeria, a close ally. It has also demonstrated its commitment to dialogue and consensus in Libya, in order to secure stability in the Maghreb region.
The commitment of national figures, political parties and civil society (particularly the UGTT) to educating and mobilizing the public to go to the polls in large numbers is very important to the success of the electoral process. At such moments, it is important to strengthen citizens’ belief in the importance of voting, even if no ideal candidate exists. Efforts should also be made by the IHEC and others to clear up the confusion between legislative and executive powers, so that citizens understand what they are voting for. Finally, it is clear that economic, social and development issues are key priorities in these elections. While the president cannot address these alone, as many such prerogatives lie in the hands of the government, it is critical to have a president who can help the government secure the stability needed to implement its program, while also acting to protect the constitutional framework.
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.