international analysis and commentary

Tunisia’s electoral fatigue and the bumpy road ahead


Independent candidate Kais Saied, a constitutional law professor, won a landslide victory in the presidential runoff, which closed an intense and unprecedented electoral season in Tunisia, for the time being. Tunisians went to the polls three times in one month: two rounds for the presidency on September 15 and October 13, and the legislative elections in between on October 6.

The electoral commission confirmed Saied predicted victory with 72,7% of the vote. His challenger, the media mogul Nabil Karoui, was just released from pre-trial detention on tax fraud and money laundering charges. Turnout is estimated at 57%, thereby a reverse trend compared to recent parliamentary elections when it hovered at only 41%.

Playing on integrity, composure and his solid image of personal incorruptibility, as well as the promise to bring back the values of the 2011 revolution, Saied even garnered a far higher consensus than Beji Caid Essebsi’s 56% in 2014, thus enjoying a strong political legitimacy. What is more, his door-to-door campaign around the country without the backing of a party, a real team of campaigners, or an electoral budget, on top of his success through meritocracy instead of great wealth, family or clientelistic networks, take on an extremely remarkable symbolic value.

Kais Saied celebrates his victory in the Tunisian presidential election


If Saied’s top place in the first round came as a surprise to most observers, though he was quickly emerging as a frontrunner in polls as the election neared, he was more likely to win in the runoff. Compared to his competitor, he could rely on a far more diversified constituency. Popular within the urban, middle-class electoral base, he has stirred a passionate following among youth – and notwithstanding his socially conservative stances – for his utopian-minded discourse of both radical state decentralization imbued with elements of direct democracy at home and pan-Arab unity abroad. Second, he enjoyed geographically wider support: Saied appealed both in the south, traditionally considered as more conservative, and the Greater Tunis and the Sahel, the stronghold of past regime elites. Not least, he benefitted from the convergence of votes from the most relevant defeated challengers (above all, the Ennahda party backed his candidacy in the run-off) and the unprecedented position of his contender. From alternating perspectives, Karoui’s confinement gave him the aura of an undeservedly persecuted political victim, or it cast a shadow not only on his morality, but also on the viability of the political process in the case of victory due to his uncertain condition in front of the law.

The timing of the elections, as well as the significance attributed to the tenant of the presidential Carthage Palace, pushed the legislative elections into the background.

Just like in 2014, the numbers have been astonishing: over 15,000 candidates running on more than 1,500 lists (mostly independents) competed for the 217-seat parliament.

With so many options to choose from, it was fairly unrealistic for citizens to scrutinize them all. Most of them were largely undistinguishable from each other, also due to very vague or pratcically non-existent programs. Such a confusing political offer not only increased the likelihood of apathy – in a context heavily marked by a growing disregard and disenchantment towards formal politics – but also of “blind votes.” As largely reported, there is little surprise that many citizens selected according to the main idea or a certain message conveyed by well-known candidates in their districts or towns regardless of their relevance on the national level.

Unlike the 2011 and 2014 legislative elections, the secular-Islamist divide appeared as less convincing and relevant, notwithstanding the attempts of some within the “secular” spectrum to resume it by playing on the Islamist threat and the securitization mantra. This was in part because citizens were clearly far more compounded by high unemployment rates, rampant inflation and worsened living standards. In addition, the two key “attracting” poles were much less identifiable at best, not to say disassembled or collapsed. On the one hand, Ennahda has increasingly downplayed its “Islamist” credential, and particularly since the formal separation in 2016 between the political and proselytizing activities, embodied by the party and the movement respectively as two separate entities. On the other hand, the anti-Islamist bloc has broken up.

Hence, parliament appears as deeply fractured as the allocation of seats showcased. Despite losing some weight, the Muslim democrats of Ennahda have come out on top in legislative polls with 52 seats out of 217, well short of the majority required (109 seats) to govern on their own. Karoui’s recently formed Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia) came in second with 38 seats.

The social-democratic Attayar (Democratic Current) party of human rights activist Mohamed Abbou was placed third with 22 seats, while the conservative Karama (Dignity) Coalition led by Islamist populist lawyer Seif Eddine Makhlouf secured 21 seats. Abir Moussi’s ultra-nationalist right-wing Free Destourian Party obtained 17 seats, followed by the socialist People’s Movement and former PM Chahed’s Tahya Tounes (Long Live Tunisia) with 16 and 14 seats respectively.

Other parties took between one and four seats each, while independent lists got 12 seats. Former ruling party Nidaa Tounes collapsed to three seats (it scored 86 in its 2014 victory).

After the two best ranked parties declared they would rule out forming an alliance in the run-up to the vote, and due to the plethora of players, the stage looks set for delicate and complex negotiations.

Much has already been written on how low turnout and the rise of independents and outsiders expose a rejection of politics-as-is in contemporary Tunisia. The latest results take on an even more critical significance for what is at stake. As highlighted in a previous contribution here, democracy was impeached for its failure to deliver economically. As both the presidential and parliamentary elections underscore, such a vote – largely against the establishment seen as castled in the ivory tower of its privileges – points to the people’s dissatisfaction with those elements of democracy that are increasingly perceived as merely political rituals, elections above all.

By extension, it points to citizens’ willingness to give new meaning to Tunisian democracy and shape a new social contract with central power so as to be more inclusive and responsive. Alongside what path is yet to be defined. Saied’s transformative vision of Tunisia into a socially conservative, decentralized state or federation, incorporates aspects of direct democracy. To many, the project appears pretty utopian, not just because it is still blurred in Saied’s proposal, but because its operationalization will need constitutional revisions, thereby qualified majorities – a major challenge for an independent president and even more within such a fragmented parliament.

The prime minister shapes most domestic politics and has more direct powers than the president who is primarily responsible for foreign policy, defense, and national security. Whereas the presidency – and Saied’s in particular – is significantly legitimized by direct popular vote and largely seen as the more high-profile position, many “grey areas” persist when it comes to policy-making. Hence, the balance of power depends on single personalities, the way the connivance between the presidency and the government is managed, as well as the political forces they rely on in the parliament.

If Essebsi had increasingly centralized power and attempted an expansion of its prerogatives, like for security matters, the innovative trend that Saied epitomizes – not least for his visionary agenda and the modest and unassuming lifestyle and campaign – risks to strand and to run aground faced with the limited powers the president still enjoys and with the opposition in parliament. Nonetheless, it is too early to assess where he will end up by playing but a merely symbolic role like Moncef Marzouki did during the Constituent Assembly period regardless of his personal merit.

Much will also depend on how solid a governmental majority will be in such a patchy parliament, where heterogeneous conservative forces significantly increased. Since 2011, under Tunisia’s current proportional system, coalition governments have been the rule and Ennahda has always been a member of them. As the top party, it has two months to form a government, before the president can ask another political force to begin negotiations for it or call for new elections. The era of inevitable compromise, however controversial and debated, is yet to be over.