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Why Tunisia’s early presidential election will test its democracy

It could reshape the country’s political system. Here’s what you should know.

Abdelfattah Mourou, vice president of the Ennahda Party, declares his candidacy earlier this month in Tunisia’s upcoming presidential elections. (Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters)

The Tunisian independent electoral commission announced last week the 26 candidates running in next month’s early presidential election. From among Tunisia’s political elite, the list includes the current and multiple former prime ministers, its defense minister and a former president. That’s in addition to a media mogul, a fugitive and, for the first time, an official candidate of the Ennahda Party.

Even though Tunisia has seen multiple elections since its 2011 revolution, this year’s presidential race is shaping up to be an exceptional one: hugely competitive and remarkably unpredictable.

The death of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi on July 25 crucially reshaped the structure of the contest and upended the calculations of parties and candidates. A constitutional provision calling for elections in 90 days reversed the original plan to hold the presidential election after the parliamentary elections in October. Perhaps even more significantly, in his final days, Essebsi refused to sign a draft law that would have prohibited several influential but controversial candidates from running.

Such a large field of candidates reflects their faith in Tunisia’s democratic process. It also serves as a new test for the country’s political actors. After years characterized by consensus, compromise and a certain predictability, the upcoming elections present unprecedented uncertainties for Tunisian voters and candidates alike. Here’s how the choices and change of sequence are affecting the upcoming election.

New challenges for programmatic parties

Tunisia’s socially conservative Ennahda, its largest party, previously forbidden under the Ben Ali regime, has since 2011 focused on securing a strong position in parliament. In the past, the party has opted for alliances in support of a nonparty candidate so as not to intimidate its political competitors by dominating multiple branches of government.

This prior reluctance to field their own presidential candidate makes the decision to introduce deputy party leader Abdelfattah Mourou all the more historic. The decision to select Mourou over party leader Rached Ghannouchi was contested within Ennahda. However, Mourou, a lawyer with an urban pedigree, is seen as the safer choice and more likely to appeal to a broader spectrum of Tunisians.

Holding the presidential election before parliamentary elections may also significantly affect Ennahda: If it wins the presidency, its opponents from left to center may form alliances to prevent the party from controlling parliament. The party could also be hesitant to mobilize its electoral potential in parliamentary elections so that it doesn’t project too much power. The wide array of front-runners, which includes former prime minister Hamadi Jebali, secretary general of the Ennahda, creates significant uncertainty about who will make it to the second round.

Other political blocs are also feeling the effects of an expedited election in reverse order. Left-wing parties have fielded several presidential candidates, creating competition within their camps. But to have parliamentary elections follow the presidential election prevents the parties from determining programmatic commonalities and building coalitions for top candidates.

Continuity, but to what?

Essebsi and former president Moncef Marzouki, the two remaining candidates in the second round of the 2014 presidential election, projected substantial political experience and the ability to represent stability and continuity. Given the sudden passing of Essebsi, ex-post glorification of his achievements, a large field of prominent candidates and widespread economic uncertainty, the “father of the nation” trope could again emerge as a factor.

This is likely to most benefit Ennahda’s “elder statesman,” Mourou, or possibly former defense minister Abdelkrim Zbidi, who was reputedly close to Essebsi. Several other candidates also play on the symbolic capital of political experience and continuity, albeit quite contrasting ones. Moncef Marzouki brings executive experience, as well as a record of consistently defending the revolution’s achievements and fighting the return of the old guard. Similarly, human rights defender Mohammed Abbou can point to a history of supporting democratic values in the bleakest years of dictatorship.

In sharp contrast, Abir Moussi’s provocative claim to continuity explicitly propagates a return to what she declares to be the achievements of former dictator Ben Ali. Last but not least, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed represents the most direct continuation of the current government’s policy platform — but he will also be the candidate measured most directly on his performance. Others, such as media magnet Nabil Karoui, may attempt to downplay their ties to murky networks of the old regime and present themselves as the heralds of rupture, rather than continuity.

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Testing and shaping the system

The upcoming presidential election presents a test for the willingness of political actors to once again accept an electoral process that none of them can entirely control or predict. This includes complying with campaign rules, particularly as it pertains to financing, and maintaining a discourse that is civil and democratic, even in the case of political defeat or a rapidly deteriorating security situation — a challenge that more than one of the current candidates have struggled with in the past. Most important, it may require accepting the victory of a polarizing candidate.

Could this electoral campaign lastingly reshape Tunisia’s political system? The enormous attention on the presidential election risks relegating the parliamentary elections to a secondary event and could affect Tunisia’s semi-presidential system. A president without the support of a strong party may advocate for a more presidential system and push for constitutional changes. On the other hand, a president with strong parliamentary backing may have an interest in strengthening parliament, as may be the case with an Ennahda double win.

With the publication of the official list of candidates, Tunisians know their options. The remaining weeks will see the candidates elaborate on their policies and positions. With debates broadcast by official Tunisian TV for the first time, the stage is aptly set for one of the most genuinely competitive electoral competitions in the history of the Arab world. As the candidates face off on live TV, their challenge will be to bring policy platforms into focus and reengage an electorate that is increasingly disillusioned with Tunisia’s democratization. The unpredictability of the race could demonstrate the power of a democratic process — or incentivize candidates to undermine it.

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Max Gallien (@MaxGallien) is a political scientist and PhD candidate at the London School of Economics.

Isabelle Werenfels (@iswerenfelsi) is a senior fellow with a special focus on the Maghreb countries at the German Institute of International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.