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  • A man poses for a picture with a poster that reads in Arabic

    A man poses for a picture with a poster that reads in Arabic "Tunis, Elect and Continue" at the media center for the presidential election in Tunis. | Photo: Reuters

Published 12 September 2019

This Sunday, Tunisia will hold its first round of elections in only the second presidential polls since dictator Ben Ali was toppled in 2011.  

In August, Tunisia’s national electoral commission announced the 26 candidates who will run in the country’s second democratic polls for the presidency since the nation's 2011 revolution toppled former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

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This Sunday's elections were initially set for Nov. 1,7 but were moved forward after President Beji Caid Essebsi died in July, just three months before the end of his mandate. Now, Tunisians will head to the polls Sept. 15 to choose their next leader who will face numerous challenges in the role as national leader. 

Political instability and economic stagnation have characterized the country since 2011 when Ben Ali was removed amid massive popular protests that started what become known as the Arab Spring that brought down leaders in neighboring Arab nations.

The North African country, often praised as a model of democratic transition in the region, has been struggling to recover economically. Its national debt amounts to more than 70 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), a significant increase compared with the pre-2011 level of 40 percent. The successive governments over the past eight years have failed to shift the 15 percent unemployment rate, which has increased to more than 30 percent in some marginalized regions. 

As the country’s economy is based on tourism, attacks on popular tourist sites in 2015 led to a strong decline in the number of visitors and devastated a vital sector for a huge part of the Tunisian population.

Poor economic situation over the past years could affect Tunisians' perception of democracy. A 2018 Afrobarometer survey found that only 46 percent of Tunisians believe that democracy is the most preferable form of government, down from 70 percent in 2013.

In a recent report, the International Crisis Group has also warned against a "general crisis of confidence in the political elite."

"Divisions within Tunisia's political leadership are preventing the government from addressing the country's political and socio-economic challenges," the organization report said.

On the other hand, Tunisia opted for a parliamentary system after 2011 over fears of concentrating too much power in the hands of a president. The presidency was thus relegated to a secondary role, leaving it in charge of foreign policy, defense and national security.

While the move was well-intended, the division of power between the president and prime minister hasn't been clearly defined and confusion over their respective spheres of influence has led to a state of political paralysis in some instances.

On the eve of these important elections in a post-dictatorship era, the following is an overview of the main presidential candidates:

Abdelfattah Mourou:

Abdelfattah Mourou is running as candidate for Tunisia’s largest political party—Ennahda—and is the only Islamist running in the race. The 71-year-old Mourou currently serves as the interim speaker of parliament and was chosen after strong disagreements within is moderate Muslim party. 

The party's decision to run a presidential candidate has divided Islamists in Tunisia and the Arab world in general. Some welcomed the decision as a step towards normalizing Islamists’ relationship with politics. However, others believe that if Mourou wins, a there could be a polarizing division between those who support Islamist rule and those who want a secular political system within the country, like what happened in Egypt.

Youssef Chahed:

Youssef Chahed, 43, is the current prime minister. Three months ago he created the Tahya Tounes politcal party, breaking away from the Nidaa Tounes ruling party that deceased Essebsi led. Chahed said he wanted his new party and candidacy to be "a rupture with the system that now threatens Tunisia, the outdated laws system, the outdated mindsets, and attitudes system," he had suffered through in the Nidaa Tounes government.

"I want to continue Habib Bourguiba's vision for the country, with a focus on the state, education, health, women and the administration," he added. Habib Bourguiba served as the country's leader from 1956 until 1987.

Chahed was appointed by Essebsi in August 2016. 

Nabil Karoui: 

Nabil Karoui, the 55-year-old leader of the Qalb Tounes party, is a controversial contender, seeing that he's currently in prison on corruption charges, but has been a front-runner in opinion polls.

The owner of Nessma TV, one of the country's most popular television stations, Karoui is a mogul who was arrested in late August on allegations of money laundering and tax evasion.

Before his recent encarceration, Karoui faced the threat of being eliminated from the race based on his charges, after parliament approved controversial amendments to the electoral law in June that allows imprisoned candidates to remain in the race if they are not convicted.

Abir Moussi:

The race's main female candidate, Abir Moussi, 44, is the president of the Free Destourian party (PDL) and former deputy secretary-general of the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), the party of the ousted Ben Ali. 

This prominent figure of the former government is committed to the ideals of former long-standing president, Habib Bourguiba (1957-1987) and is strongly opposed to the Islamists.

Moncef Marzouki

Moncef Marzouki, president of the Al-Irada party, was the first president of the Tunisian Republic in 2011 after Ben Ali's overthrow, being elected by legislators before the country's new constitution was drafted in 2014.

That same year, with the support of Ennahda, Marzouki reached the second round of the presidential election with 33.43 percent of the vote but then lost to Essebsi.

Two left-leaning contenders:

Mongi Rahoui is supported by two left-wing parties, Al-Watad and Al-Tliaa. His candidacy sparked controversy within his Popular Front (FP) coalition, an alliance of nine socialist political parties and independent politicians. Most of the parties in the coalition back its founder and other leftist candidate, Hamma Hammemi, instead who is the secretary-general of the Workers Party. He came in third in the 2014 presidential election with 7.8 percent of the vote. 

"Hammemi's running for office is a symbolic gesture and he is aware of that,” Zamali told Middle East Eye.

The Tunisian left is unlikely to win the elections as they failed after the revolution to build strong political parties. The candidates who hail from ruling parties seem to have a better chance of reaching the runoffs.

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