A desire for change brings new faces to Tunisian politics

September 24, 2019

By Ryan Grace

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Seizing on Tunisians’ lack of faith in traditional political elites, two outsiders beat a field of 24 other candidates to advance to the final round of voting in Tunisia’s presidential elections. Law professor Kais Saied and businessman Nabil Karoui, who is currently in jail on charges of money laundering and tax evasion, led the field in the September 15 election and will run against one another in early October. Their success thus far represents a popular shift in Tunisia, where consensus between Islamists and secularist elites has driven politics since the 2011 Tunisian Revolution.  

In the past eight years, Tunisia has struggled to deliver on the promises of the revolution that ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. According to World Bank data, unemployment in Tunisia hovers around 15% and has been estimated to be near 30% among young college graduates. A lack of jobs, coupled with high inflation and a weak currency, has hampered economic development. The repeated failure of the main political parties to address these problems has nurtured disdain for the establishment. This feeling is reflected in voter turnout, which dropped to 33% in last year’s municipal elections.

This election comes at the tail end of a tumultuous summer punctuated by the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi. His passing in late July caused the timing of the presidential elections to be shifted from November to September, placing them before parliamentary elections. This change may have allowed independent candidates such as Saied to attract more attention, as voters were less inclined to focus on party affiliation due to parliamentary results.

The field of 26 candidates included big names such as current Prime Minister Yousef Chahed of Tahya Tounes and Abdelfattah Mourou of Ennahda. According to Nizar Ben Salah, lead researcher at the Maghreb Economic Forum, “the large number of presidential candidates does not reflect diversity…22 out of 26 candidates share almost the same ideas, messages and initiatives.” Those who were able to differentiate their message found success. 

Nabil Karoui’s rise as a populist alternative has been spurred by his successful use of the private television station he owns, Nessma Tounes, to publicize his anti-poverty charity organization’s work to aid Tunisia’s poor and promote the political message of his political party, Heart of Tunis. His populist messaging and business background have led some to call him the “Tunisian Berlusconi,” a reference to Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media tycoon and longtime politician. His arrest on money laundering and tax evasion charges (which he claims were purely politically motivated) caused Karoui to be in jail during the election. Despite this, he was still able to capture 15.5% of the vote, a large portion of which came from older Tunisians who saw him as someone who could deliver economic reform.

If Karoui is known for being popular and visible through television and media, Kais Saied might well be described as the opposite. Known for his rigid style of speaking and preference for Modern Standard Arabic rather than the Tunisian dialect, the man nicknamed “Robocop” by his supporters built a campaign centered around humility, youth appeal and conservatism. 

Running a small campaign consisting of door-to-door canvassing and a heavy social media presence, Saied’s appeal seems derived from the perception that he might be an incorruptible “clean slate” for Tunisia. He argues for a drastic shift in the political makeup of Tunisia that would introduce direct democracy and widespread political decentralization. This would lead to greater autonomy in local government, which he claims will empower youth. His willingness to take aim at the broader system in Tunisia appealed greatly to frustrated youth, a demographic where he captured 37% of voters between the age of 18-25, and 18.4% in the overall results.

Saied’s conservatism has prompted some concern from the activist community. He calls for the return of the death penalty, the maintenance of an inheritance law that allots women a fraction of the money that men receive, and the continued criminalization of homosexuality. Despite Saied’s success, many activists remain optimistic about the trajectory of social justice issues in Tunisia. Describing this year’s elections, one activist said, “during the debates, topics that were once taboo were talked about on live TV,” reflecting how mainstream political discourse has expanded to include LGBT and women’s rights. 

To win the presidency, the presidential hopefuls will need more than 50% of the vote in the final round. Since leading the first round, Saied has received the backing of at least five other parties, including the Islamist Ennahda party. His appeal to youth is likely to attract more voters in the upcoming round. In contrast, support for Karoui’s candidacy has not grown significantly, and his base of mostly older Tunisians is not expected to increase much. Saied’s support, coupled with the fact that Karoui is currently in jail, has left Saied as the favorite to win the presidency.

Whether Saied or Karoui ultimately proves victorious in the final round of the election, they may both face additional challenges as political outsiders navigating a political environment that still requires successful presidents to build coalitions with political elites. 

Speaking to the Observer, SAIS alumnus and Tunisia-based journalist for El País Ricard Gonzalez (SAIS ’07) explained that, if he wins, “Saied will be a weak President. He was only able to win about 18% of the vote in the first round, and in the last election [former President] Essebsi won 37%. Also, he does not have a political party and will need to make compromises with political elites.”

The unanticipated rise of outsider candidates like Saied and Karoui bodes for an interesting October as Tunisia holds parliamentary elections. It remains to be seen if the anti-establishment wave will carry over to the legislative elections set for October 6.