Tunisia prime minister says controversial electoral law changes now ‘buried’

Decision brings many presidential candidates back into the fold, potentially opening up the race

Tunisian Parliament President Mohamed Ennaceur (R) arrives after being sworn in as Interim president to attend the security national Cabinet meeting with Tunisian prime minister Youssef Chahed in Tunis on July 25, 2019. Tunisia's parliamentary speaker has been sworn in as interim president, just hours after the death of ailing leader Beji Caid Essebsi. Essebsi, the North African country's first leader elected in nationwide polls, died on July 25 at the age of 92. / AFP / FETHI BELAID
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Tunisia’s Prime Minister Youssef Chahed confirmed that an electoral law amending the rules of eligibility for candidates has been dropped, a decision that potentially opens up the race for the presidency next month.

The law passed by parliament in mid-June but not signed by President Beji Caid Essebsi before his death last month, had been “buried”, Mr Chahed said in an interview with the national television station on Thursday.

The presidential race has already proven dramatic. Originally scheduled for November, Caid Essebsi's death saw the poll brought forward to September 15, placing it before the legislative elections, which are still slated for October 6.

The withdrawal of the electoral law, which would have barred anyone from running for president who benefited from the support of an association, television network or who had adopted a platform outside of the country’s constitutional ideals, opens the door for more drama.

The law could have been tailor-made to exclude the front-runner, Nabil Karoui, the boss of Nessma TV and founder of a charity named after his late son, Khalil Tounes. However, it would have also ruled out the lawyer Abir Moussi, an apologist for former dictator Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, and Olfa Terras-Rambourg, the president of the NGO 3inch Tounsi who is running in the legislative elections. According to a July 15 poll conducted by Emrhod Consulting, one of the last allowed before the elections, Mr Karoui comfortably led the pack of candidates, capturing 23 per cent of intended votes. He was followed by Kais Saied, an idiosyncratic law professor running as an independent, with 14 per cent. Mr Chahed languished in third place with 7.8 per cent of votes, although still ahead of Ms Moussi's 5.2 per cent.

“The failure of the proposed amendments means that elections will continue as usual,” said political analyst Youssef Cherif from the Carnegie Centre. “And that there won't be any doubts on the legitimacy of the results. It also means that populist figures/parties and other candidates with dubious pasts will run and even get elected.”

All the earlier polls, as well as the results of municipal elections last year, tell a similar story. Unhappy with the jockeying of 221 political parties and their representatives, Tunisia is clearly leaning towards candidates outside the system and, in some cases, those that actually threaten to dismantle it. Their reasons are straightforward. Eight years after the revolution that promised work, dignity and freedom, Tunisians may have gained the latter, however the former remains in short supply.

Unemployment has increased from a little over 13 per cent in 2010 to 15.3 per cent today. In the country’s overlooked interior, that figure can climb as high as 30 per cent. With every month that passes, the cost of living rises as the value of the national currency falls.

Dissatisfaction with the parties that rushed to claim the mantle of the revolution and then squandered those gains on internecine politicking is palpable, and those that threaten the status quo are reaping the dividends.

“The new players are the ones who claim that they will take Tunisia out of its current situation and improve the economic situation. Dissatisfied citizens see them as their saviours,” Mr Cherif said.

Mr Karoui and his brother Ghazi, who is standing in the legislative elections, are a case in point. The brothers are under investigation for money laundering and tax evasion. As a result, their assets are frozen and neither man is allowed to leave the country.

Nevertheless, by harnessing their high public profile, as well using regular broadcasts on their television network to draw attention to the desperate conditions in the country’s interior and the efforts of the NGO Khalil Tounes to relieve them, they have ridden a populist surge to the top of the polls.

Second-placed Mr Saied has a more atypical approach. Besides not voting for himself, he is promising to do away with parliament and replace it with a body appointed by the country’s municipal councils.

For Mr Chahed, who as prime minister has overseen three years of economic stagnation that his rivals will now seek to lay at his door, the failure of the electoral law could prove a mixed blessing, according to Mr Cherif.

Mr Chahed was perceived, along with the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, of pushing for amendments that would have prevented voters from holding them to account.

“Had the law passed, his position would have been even worse. His inner circle backed the amendments, which targeted his main opponents. Therefore, it was seen as a 'tailored' law to target his opponents," Mr Cherif said. "But now he will face serious foes who hold him as their direct enemy.”

That the elections are taking place at all is significant. Tunisia is the only one of the countries that witnessed uprisings in 2011 to have stayed on a democratic course. Irrespective of the outcome, the staging of its second round of free and constitutionally mandated elections this year is praiseworthy. Events between now and those polls will be nothing if not interesting.