In a global era of electoral upsets, the rise of anti-establishment or populist movements and popular rage against the elites, Tunisia produced its share in the first round of the presidential elections that took place on Sunday. It is curious -and somehow depressing- that a young democracy suffers already from the ills of old ones. However, it is perfectly understandable given the social crisis the country is enduring and the dismal performance of successive governments after the Revolution, especially during the last five years. So time for my beloved “five quick” takes after an interesting election:
The anti-establishment tsunami
Tunisians dealt with severely with its political elite. The parties who have ruled the country since the Revolution, were just swept by a wave of rage. In 2014, there was an acute bi-polarization of the Tunisian political scene around Ennahda and Nida Tunis. Counted together, they got around 65% of the votes in the legislative elections held that year. On Sunday, the addition of the votes of their main candidates -taking Chahed and Zbidi as inheritors of Nida Tunis- amounted to less than 30%. In addition to this, the two winners, Nabil Karoui and Kaïs Saied, were not present in any institution. That is, the opposition -Mohamed Abbou, Abir Moussi, Hama Hammami- did not reap the benefits of the social discontent, since they are also seen as part of the hated political elite.
Kais Saied, the victory of a “political UFO”
The Constitutional Law professor who won the first round of the presidential elections with 19% of the vote, may well be the most unconventional politician at a time of global rise of heterodox politicians (Trump, Bolsonaro, Zelensky, etc). Let’s see: he does not have a FB page in a country where it is the main tool of communication; he speaks in classical Arabic at a time where analysts advise to speak the language of the people to get closer to them; he does not have an electoral machine -or social movement behind- though several studies suggest it is key for success; he is rather old and hieratical at the age of visual communication; he does not have a clear economic program although the voters are mostly worried about the economy. And despite all this -or, maybe, because all this- he made. Tunisians were looking for something completely different. And they found it. He is labelled by some as a “populist”, but I don’t agree. He is radical in some aspects, conservative in others, rarely populist. He is now the big favourite in the second round, so he will probably be the next president of Tunisia.
Karoui’s limited success:
On Sunday night, there was a party at Nabil Karoui’s siege. The sense of relief was logic, since it was not easy to manage a campaign with the candidate in prison. However, the tycoon results felt short of most expectations. According to polls, he was supposed to win easily the first round. He did not. The results showed the limits to his strategy: to bring to the polls poor Tunisians, which were largely absent from previous electoral contests. He failed. Certainly, he was the preferred candidate for those voters with a lower educational level, but the turnout was lower than in previous elections. So Karoui did not bring new voters to the fold. Tunisia is not Peru, and Karoui is not Fujimori. Setting aside the Gulf monarchies, this is the only Arab country that (still) has an important middle-class. Plus, Karoui’s Khalil Tunis charity foundation does not have the deep reach of a State to provide with material support to the destitute.
The end of Ennahda myth
Full of contempt, some secular activists and politicians call Islamist voters “sheep” because they are supposed to blindly follow orders from the leadership of Ennahda party. If they ever did, it is now the past. Most analysts have suggested that they have a rock-solid base of around 30% of Tunisian voters. That’s the percentage they got in the 2014 legislative elections and 2018 local elections. However, its candidate, charismatic Abdelfattah Mourou got around 13% of the vote, and he won’t enter the second round. Striking. Although, in fact, Ennahda has been losing voters in absolute numbers in every contest since 2011, when they won the first elections with around 1.5 million votes (37%). Ennahda voters are not sheep, and they are as disappointed with the state of the country as other Tunisians. So they have punished the moderate Islamist party, which has supported all failed Governments since the Revolution. At some point, the leadership will have to critically evaluate its “consensus” strategy, based on making an alliance with unsavory characters, such as Ben Ali’s “deep state”, for the sake of its own preservation.
A fragmented parliament
While most media have focused on the presidential elections, the parliamentary elections that will take place on October 6th will be more consequential. Let’s not forget that according to the Constitution, the prime minister is stronger than the president. So the big question is: how the results in the presidential election will affect the parliamentary? Tough to say. They may push local independent lists, and maybe also Nabil Karoui’s party: Qalb Tunis. In any case, the elections showed a deep fragmentation of the vote -the winner stayed under the 20%-, so the same will probably happen in the legislative elections. Without big blocks, that will mean that the new Government will have to include several political parties. Therefore, it will probably be a weak government, which is exactly the opposite of what the sclerotic Tunisian economy needs.