Tunisia election: Nabil Karoui controversy threatens to overshadow crucial poll

Nabil Karoui's suffers another election blow as unverified documents claim he signed a lobying contract

In this Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 photo, supporters of jailed media magnate Nabil Karoui chant for his freedom and carry posters which were provided to them by his campaign officials, in Nabeul, west of Tunis, Tunisia.  The two final contenders for Tunisia's upcoming presidential runoff vote, pitches a professor who refuses to campaign, against a media mogul who can only campaign from his jail cell. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
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As Tunisia prepares for legislative elections on Sunday, the drama of the presidential race continues to overshadow what is arguably a more relevant vote for many Tunisians.

The publication of a million-dollar lobbying contract purporting to be between imprisoned presidential candidate Nabil Karoui and the Montreal-based company Dickens and Madson has drawn the attention of many of Tunisian voters ahead of Sunday's vote.

Released on Wednesday evening by news website Al Monitor, the effect of the document on the reputation of both Nabil Karoui and his party Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia), is yet to be seen.

But with second-round presidential elections slated for October 13, its publication comes at a critical time for both electoral races, already subject to controversy as a result of Mr Karoui’s continued imprisonment on tax evasion and money laundering charges.

Under the terms of the alleged contract published by AI Monitor, Dickens and Madson are instructed to secure meetings with various international bodies.

The document’s signatories have not been verified and a spokesperson for Qalb Tounes said that, although they had no definite proof, the document appeared to be “manufactured” by Mr Karoui’s opponents.

The identity of the individual claiming to be acting on behalf of Mr Karoui, Mohamed Bouderbala, whose signature appears upon the Foreign Agents Registration Act paperwork has also been called into question.

“We have no clue about the person who signed the document,” the spokesperson said.

"Qalb Tounes isn't affected by Karoui's imprisonment," political analyst specialising in North Africa, Youssef Cherif told The National.

“It's leading and the campaign is ongoing, with a lot of means at the disposal of the campaigning team.

"However, the lobbying contract may contribute to weakening Karoui as a presidential candidate.

"This is too big to be covered up. It's breaching several Tunisian laws and norms and it shows how advantaged Karoui is in comparison to his rival Kais Saied."

Despite the drama of the presidential race, it is the legislative vote that holds the most relevance to the country at large.

While the powers of the presidency are largely limited to defence and foreign policy, the remit of Tunisia’s Assembly of the Representatives of the Party, (ARP) is more wide ranging.

The ARP nominates the Chief of Government (prime minister) a position that, after a confirmatory vote, enjoys a wide range of powers including a virtual monopoly over domestic policy.

These are areas on which both presidential contenders, Mr Karoui and his rival, the independent law professor Kais Saied, have rested much of their platform.

And despite his considerable resources, Mr Karoui appears to have succeeded in positioning himself and his party as the insurgent underdogs against established party rival and moderate Islamists Ennahda.

The fight, although it includes more than 10,000 candidates of various party affiliations, is likely to boil down to a contest between the two factions.

“Ennahdha, because it's been in government for almost a decade now, is seen as the main, [party] responsible for the bad economic situation,” Mr Cherif said.

Tunisia’s faltering economy and widespread perception among the public that the government is corrupt is hard to deny, given a number of high profile arrests in recent years.

Transparency International’s 2018 survey scored Tunisia 43 out of a possible 100 points on its Corruption Perceptions Index, positioning the country 73rd out of a field of 180.

Since its 2011 uprising, economic growth has been stunted, resulting in ingrained unemployment and widespread poverty, particularly within rural areas, regions in which Qalb Tounes now seeks to make gains.

"I'm not sure we can even talk about poverty, we can talk about famine," Samy Achour, a senior member of Qalb Tounes' political bureau, told The National this week.

“People are hungry, people don’t have access to water, people are sick,” he said, adding that, if successful, Tunisia’s poor would be a legislative priority for the party.

“We have to create a sustainable economy that’s going to last for the long term, for the existing generation and the upcoming one."

But although Qalb Tounes is likely to perform well on Sunday, the party whose candidates are now pitched in a field said by Tunisia's electoral authority to exceed 15,000 must compete within 1,507 electoral lists for the 217 seats available in the ARP.