Op-Ed: Parliament goes after populist presidential candidate in Tunisia

By Francois Conradie, Head of Research at NKC African Economics

A recent change in Tunisia’s electoral legislation is a self-preservation bid by the major parties that control Parliament. The major parties have started to feel threatened by populists who appeared to be strong contenders to win the presidential election that is supposed to be held in November (first round) and December of this year and have accordingly moved to exclude them.

On Tuesday, June 18, 122 of the 170 deputies present in the House of People’s Representatives voted in favour of changes to the voting code, of which the most important are a ‘representativeness threshold’ in the parliamentary race, which means that parties that win less than 3% of the overall vote will no longer obtain representation in Parliament, and two oddly specific new clauses that were plainly introduced purely to exclude particular candidates.

In terms of the first, “any person who has in the year preceding the poll granted advantages of any kind, in money or in kind, to citizens” is barred from running; the second new clause bars anyone who uses language “that does not respect the democratic regime and the Constitution,” “criticises the revolution [of 2011]” or “has nostalgia for the Ben Ali era.”

By contrast, a proposal to ban floor-crossing by members of Parliament was voted down.

The clause barring those who give gifts is designed to disqualify Nabil Karoui, a 55-year-old media tycoon who owns Nessma TV, the most popular television channel in the country.

His station’s inexpensive Turkish soap operas have given it wide reach, and Mr Karoui has used this to his advantage by trumpeting his charitable efforts, which reached a crescendo during Ramadan when he gave thousands of iftar meals to the needy – on television, obviously.

In April, when his political clout was becoming apparent, the broadcasting watchdog closed Nessma down for a few days. It was also on Nessma TV on May 27 that Mr Karoui announced his intention to contest the presidential race.

The change in legislation also targets Olfa Terras Rambourg, the wife of a French hedge fund multimillionaire, who has boosted her popularity by similar means.

The language about apologists for deposed President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, meanwhile, is plainly aimed at Abir Moussi, an unapologetic fan of the former leader who has been campaigning on nostalgia for the security that his era represents in the memories of many.

The law now has to be signed by President Beji Caid Essebsi to become active, but the possibility exists that the president will refuse to do so. He has a political motivation to block it to get back at the alliance between Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s Tahya Tounes party and the Islamists of Ennahdha, who got the law voted.

Also, there are legal considerations: the law barring candidates for their past actions obviously violates the legal principle that a new law may not apply retroactively (which is part of Tunisian law), but as the country still does not have a Constitutional Court, there is no way to challenge it and the president may elect to decline to pass it for this reason.

If he does sign, the final decisions on who will be allowed to run rest with the Higher Independent Elections Authority (Isie).

An opinion poll by Sigma Conseil, published on June 12, found that 25% of respondents intended to vote for Mr Karoui. He was followed by Kais Saied (23%) – a fairly conservative 61-year-old law professor whose positions on social matters are those of the pious majority (and whose gimmick of speaking only literary Arabic instead of Tunisian dialect or French impresses people). In third place was the ‘Benaliste’ Ms Moussi with 11% – way ahead of Mr Chahed with 7% (down from 31% in February) and former President Moncef Marzouki with 6%.

The vote in Parliament further confirms the dominance of the political environment by the loose coalition between Mr Chahed’s Tahya Tounes and Ennahdha. It now seems as though Ennahdha will instruct its supporters to vote for Mr Chahed in the presidential election.

Given the dearth of talent in Mr Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes, he currently looks to be the favourite despite his collapsing popularity. But the legislation just passed through Parliament is dubious, and it may end up being challenged in the courts in some way – if it is not blocked by the president first.

The period of pre-election instability is here.

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