Tunisia's presidential elections: why are they so important?

Many across the Arab world will watch as the fledgling democracy heads to the polls on Sunday

epa07826666 Supporters of Tunisia's former defence minister and presidential candidate Abdelkrim Zbidi during his presidential electoral campaign in Monastir, Tunisia, 07 September 2019. The first round of the presidential election in Tunisia will be held on 15 September.  EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA
Powered by automated translation

Tunisia will head to the polls on September 15 for its second-ever presidential election in a major test for the country.

Tunisia is the only democracy to emerge from the Arab uprisings, with its 2011 revolution triggering similar civil movements in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain, and smaller protests elsewhere. As a result, the election will draw a lot of attention from across the Arab world, with the vote looking likely to be both competitive and unpredictable.

The first democratically elected leader, Beji Caid Essebi, died in July at 92, forcing the polls to be brought forward from November. It was announced in the same month that 26 candidates would be in the running, with former prime ministers, the defence minister and a former president on the list.

Abdelfattah Mourou, a lawyer, is the first member of the previously banned, socially conservative Ennahda party to run for president since the revolution. And among the most prominent candidates is TV mogul Nabil Karoui, who is currently in pretrial detention on suspicion of tax fraud and money laundering.

On Tuesday, Tunisia's judiciary rejected an appeal to release Mr Karoui, but he remains a candidate in the polls and is expected to be let out if he reaches the second round of voting.

The uproar around Mr Karoui's detention, with some claiming that he is a “political prisoner”, is not the only challenge facing Tunisia’s democracy. Years of economic troubles have undermined trust in politics and turnout for municipal voting last year barely reached 30 per cent.

For Saturday to Monday, the country aired its first televised election debates – another rare event in the Arab world. National security and terrorism featured heavily in discussions, with the country having been hit by multiple militant attacks that have killed dozens of members of the security forces and foreign tourists. The country has been under a state of emergency since November 2015, when an ISIS suicide bombing in the capital Tunis killed 12 presidential guards.

Other key issues include the country’s general reorientation towards Sub-Saharan Africa and the economy, with unemployment high and the cost of living rising. Despite the revolution being in part fuelled by food prices, the economy appears to be in an even worse state now, contributing to regular protests and widespread alienation from politics.

Depending on how Sunday's vote and the subsequent legislative polls play out, the elections could be a win for democracy in the Arab world, or it could serve to highlight its fragility.