By Francois Conradie, Head of Research, NKC African Economics.
Tunisia’s voters took to the polls on Sunday, September 15, in the first round of the second democratic direct presidential election in the country’s history.
Since Tunisians elected Beji Caid Essebsi in the first such election in November 2014, the political environment has undergone a number of changes: Mr Essebsi has died; his party, Nidaa Tounes, has been badly damaged by infighting; and the marriage of convenience between his secular current and the Islamist current is on the rocks.
The race is a two-round affair: The first round is on Sunday and the second round will take place later (no date has been fixed yet, but it will probably be around October 13, which is the week after the legislative election on October 6).
Results from the first round will be known early in the week after the vote.
There are 26 candidates in the race. No publication of opinion polling data has been permitted since the start of campaigning, on July 16, so the most recent poll (or the most recent reliable one – fake poll results have been flying across social media) is from mid-July. That poll, by Sigma Conseil, indicates television tycoon Nabil Karoui as the favourite (with 23% of voting intentions), followed by Kaies Saied, an elderly law professor (20%); Abir Moussi, the Ben Ali apologist (12%); Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who looked like the favourite not so many months ago (7%); former state president Moncef Marzouki (7%); and Defence Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi (3%).
But that was before Mr Essebsi died, before Mr Karoui was arrested on August 23 on money laundering charges that date from 2016, and before the Islamists of Ennahdha named a candidate, Abdelfattah Mourou.
There is little doubt in public opinion that the accusations against Mr Karoui are politically motivated, and Tunisians see the hand of Prime Minister Chahed behind it.
Mr Karoui may be freed at the eleventh hour: his case is to go to a second appeal before the Cour de Cassation on Friday, September 13. Our expectation (based on conversations with sources with some legal knowledge) is for the case against him to be struck down, and for him to accordingly be in a position to contest the election normally.
A twist in the story is that if he is elected president, Mr Karoui would become immune from prosecution on these or other charges.
Mr Essebsi’s death has boosted Mr Zbidi’s chances. His experience at defence is a strong selling point in a country that has felt a serious deterioration in security since the 2011 uprising against Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali, and he will moreover be the natural candidate for secularist voters who are looking for a candidate to block the Islamists.
Mr Mourou’s campaign has not gone especially well (when his party named him, we thought he looked to be a strong contender) and we expect he will get little support outside of the relatively small community of convinced Islamists.
The people who have historically supported Ennahdha will, this time, vote for the populist candidates like Mr Karoui or Mr Saied, as the polls show. Our expectation is for Mr Karoui and Mr Zbidi to go to the second round. Mr Karoui’s party, Heart of Tunisia, is also looking like a strong favourite to dominate the legislative race in October.
The election should go smoothly and should once again affirm Tunisia’s status as poster child for Arab democracy.
Political interference in the judiciary (we are among those who see Mr Chahed’s hand in Mr Karoui’s arrest) is less positive, but, without relativising the matter too much, is more typical of Italy’s messy and semi-captured democracy than of the pitiless autocracy of Tunisia in Mr Ben Ali’s time. (So is the popularity of Mr Karoui, who seems to have studied former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi for political strategy.)
If Mr Karoui’s appeal succeeds, we expect him and Mr Zbidi to go through to the second round, in which Mr Zbidi is set to be the favourite.
The legislative election will deliver a very divided Parliament, which will probably mean some weeks of negotiations before a prime minister is named and the government can get down to business.