Tunisian presidential elections: a major test for the Arab Spring’s legacy

Tunisian elections - What to expect as the young democracy faces a crucial test.

September 15, 2019, 11:29 AM

Paris -- On Sunday, 7 million Tunisians will vote for a new president in the country's second presidential election since Tunisia’s Arab Spring in 2011.

Arab Spring led to Tunisia’s first democratic elections.

Initially scheduled for Nov. 17, the election was pushed forward after the death of the incumbent president Béji Caïd Essebsi on July 25.

In 2011, Tunisians protested for four weeks against social inequalities and government corruption in a context of high unemployment, eventually ousting longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

For many, Tunisia is seen as the only real success coming out of the Arab Spring and as a new democracy. The nation held its first democratic elections in 2014 which led to Essebsi’s presidency.

But a series of terrorist attacks on popular tourist sites in 2015 prompted major European countries to advise against traveling to Tunisia, which hit the country's tourism sector hard. And a severe economic crisis brought unemployment rates as high as 15%, particularly effecting Tunisia's young people.

Now the country struggles to establish a true democratic process, as voter turnout plummets and distrust in politicians increases. In the last local elections, less than 40% of Tunisians came out to vote.

The sudden incarceration of the main contender Nabil Karoui late August on charges of tax evasion and money laundering could further decrease Tunisians’ belief in the democratic process. Karoui, an "anti-establishment" media mogul, was leading in the polls with a campaign centered around his personality and the liberalization of the Tunisian economy.

Karoui was leading in polls as of May. In July, the Tunisian government passed a law banning the publishing of opinion polls during an electoral campaign, so there is no updated polling information available since then.

Unable to attend the main electoral debate last Saturday, Karoui continues his campaign from prison. His party, Qalb Tounes, (translated as "Heart of Tunisia") denounced in a press release the "kidnapping" of its leader and evoked a "fascist practice."

In a Facebook post, his legal counsel revealed that Karoui began a hunger strike on Wednesday to demand that his constitutional right to vote in the elections be respected.

For Tunisian’s second presidential elections, voters will have to choose among no less than 24 candidates, including the current prime minister, a former defense secretary and the conservative Muslim party Ennahda.If no candidate wins a majority on Sunday’s first round, which is likely, a second round will take place in November.