TUNIS — Tunisians head to the polls Sunday for a presidential election seen as a crucial test for the country, the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring revolts of 2011, but a distinctly fragile one as it struggles with economic woes and the threat of Islamist extremism.
Now, 26 candidates are vying to succeed Essebsi. They include secularists, moderate Islamists, populists and an imprisoned media tycoon.
The peaceful run-up to Sunday’s vote is the latest sign of the fledgling North African democracy’s unique standing. In a region ruled by dictators and monarchs, where elections are usually rigged and civil strife has beset societies since the Arab Spring, Tunisia has held televised presidential debates — a first in the Arab world.
By contrast, all the credible candidates in Egypt’s presidential election last year were arrested or pushed out, allowing the country’s autocratic leader, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, to easily win again.
“In a region where democratic behavior is in short supply, Tunisia has an outsized impact,” said Daniel Twining, president of the International Republican Institute, who is in Tunisia with a team of observers to monitor the vote. “Tunisia’s example can be a source of inspiration if their democratic institutions remain resilient and lay the foundation for a more stable and prosperous country.”
Indeed, neighboring Algeria and Sudan are experiencing Tunisia-like moments. Street protests in Algeria, unfolding now for more than 30 weeks, have not only forced out longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika but continue to demand democratic reforms. In Sudan, demonstrations toppled dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir, and a power-sharing agreement signed last month has moved the country a step closer to full democracy.
Tunisia’s own democracy has been tested before. In 2013, the assassination of several secular leaders, allegedly by Islamists, triggered protests and militant attacks on police. Tensions between Islamists and secularists grew, dividing the public. Civil society groups joined forces to unite the battling factions, actions that garnered them the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.
Yet even as Tunisia’s path today shows signs of a maturing democracy, the country faces multiple challenges to its stability. Unemployment is growing, while living standards have fallen, following public spending cuts mandated by an International Monetary Fund-backed loan program. Regular protests have erupted over poor economic conditions.
That concerns observers, in large part because Tunisia’s revolution, which ignited the wave of populist revolts eight years ago in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere, was fueled as much by rising prices as by the corrosive dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who later fled into exile.
“The defining issue of this year’s election is whether the Tunisian state can meet the social and economic needs of its people,” Anthony Dworkin, a Tunisia analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in an essay Thursday. “The revolution of 2011 led to a genuinely competitive political system but has not delivered any democratic dividend to Tunisia’s citizens.”
The lack of jobs and other opportunities was a key reason thousands of Tunisian youths left to fight in the wars in Syria and Iraq — more recruits than from any other country. Many joined al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
With those groups largely defeated, hundreds of Tunisian militants have returned to an economy worse than when they left. Tunisian and regional officials worry many more will return to spread their ideology and violence, potentially derailing the Arab Spring’s only success story.
The country has already become a target.
In 2015, the Islamic State asserted responsibility for two attacks — in the resort town of Sousse and at the Bardo Museum here in the capital — that killed scores, mostly foreign tourists. The next year, Islamic State fighters crossed over from neighboring Libya and attacked the border town of Ben Guerdane.
A few weeks before Essebsi’s death, the group claimed two suicide bombings in Tunis.
Affiliates of both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are actively recruiting locals, especially in impoverished interior and border areas, according to Tunisian and Western security officials. Western diplomats and counterterrorism experts say addressing Tunisia’s socioeconomic crisis is critical to preventing the radicalization of its youth.
Today, though, the lack of economic progress and wrangling among the country’s myriad political parties have spawned widespread public mistrust of the political system, according to various public surveys and analysts.
Voter apathy has soared. The turnout for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014 was 63 percent and 68 percent, respectively. In last year’s municipal elections, it was 34 percent.
The president’s death forced Sunday’s election to be moved forward by two months, leaving less time for electoral authorities to prepare. Essebsi was at times controversial, but he was widely credited as being the glue that held Tunisia’s secularists and the influential moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, together in a coalition government. The union, some observers say, prevented civil strife and was praised as a model of political tolerance and harmony.
With his death, the election has become a free-for-all, with credible candidates of all political stripes seeking his mantle. The outcome could realign the country’s political landscape, analysts said.
His death “solidified the demise of his political party and isolated his son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, who is now in exile in France and has no political future,” said a Western analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is an election observer. “It also paved the way for new faces and voices to enter the political scene.”
Those faces include Moncef Marzouki, the country’s interim president from 2011 to 2014; Youssef Chahed, the current prime minister; and Abdelfattah Mourou, the first member of Ennahda to run for president since the revolution. Then, there is Abir Moussi, an unexpected candidate, since she professes support for Ben Ali.
Nabil Karoui, a top contender, was arrested and charged with corruption and tax evasion, allegations the media mogul has denied. But under Tunisian law, he can still run for the presidency from his jail cell.
With a candidate requiring 50 percent of the votes to win outright, a runoff is widely expected.
The central question here: Will Tunisians turn out in large numbers to vote, lending more credibility to their democracy?
Some analysts see promise in the millions who watched the televised debates. And the electoral commission has reported more than 1.5 million new voters in a nation of 11 million people.
“Many Tunisians have grown angry and frustrated with the political institutions and leaders,” said the Western analyst. “This is a chance for a fresh start and for people to reinvigorate their democratic spirit.”