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Tunisia vote: meet the front-runners competing for presidency

Tunisia's Ennahda named a candidate for first time since 2011 revolution


Tunisia is gearing up for its second free and democratic presidential election that is expected to be held on 15 September, two months earlier that its supposed date as the country’s President Beji Caid Essebsi died in July after severe health crisis. The elections were supposed to be held on 17 November.

Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections announced on 31 August that it approved the papers of 26 candidates with diverse ideologies, including two women, running for the office. More than seven million Tunisians are expected to cast their ballots in the vote.

Candidates started their campaigns on 2 September as they will last until 13 September. Initial results are to be announced on 17 September.

Essebsi came to office in December 2014, after winning the country’s first free presidential poll since the sweeping uprising which toppled long-time autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 after 23 years in office. 

Among the candidates are Nabil Karoui of the Qalb Tounes party (Heart of Tunisia), former prime minister Mehdi Jomaa, Abdel Fattah Mourou chosen by Ennahda party (Renaissance), former president Moncef Marzouki, former head of government Youssef Chahed, President of the Free Destourian Party (PDL) Abir Moussi, and former Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi. 

Tunisia is widely seen as the only successful symbol of democracy following the Arab Spring in 2011. However, the country’s nine governments which took the lead of the country, since then, have failed in tackling its economic troubles.  

Meanwhile, Tunisians, especially women, fear that big leaps made regarding their civil rights by Essibsi could be revoked after his death.

Essebsi took a brave move in August 2018 to support an unprecedented draft which aims to grant Muslim women equal inheritance rights, as the current system is based on the Islamic Shariah Law which permit daughters only half of the inheritance given to sons.

Essebsi further decreed that Muslim women can marry men outside Islamic faith. Islam sets strict rules that prevent women from marrying non-Muslim men.

“The choice between voters is going to be influenced by two opposing elements: the willingness to claim the legacy of Essebsi on specific issues, including women’s rights, versus the ability to calm citizens’ fears and meet their expectations,” Haykel Ben Mahfoudh, a senior non-resident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East wrote in the Atlantic Council think tank.

According to the 2014 Tunisian Constitution, the president and a government chosen by parliament share executive powers and governing, as the president has authority on foreign and defence policy.

Noteworthy, Essebsi called for amending the constitution a few months before his death, amid disputes with the head of government, Youssef Chahed.

Here are the main candidates running for presidency: 

Youssef Chahed 

Chahed run the upcoming elections under the umbrella of his party Tahya Tounes (Long Live Tunisia).

He is a 43-year-old agriculture engineer chosen by Essebsi to lead the cabinet in 2016, as he was a member of the Nidaa Tounes party (Call for Tunisia), founded by Essebsi.

Earlier this year, Chahed and several MPs founded the secular party Tahya Tounes, intending to compete with moderate Islamists in the presidential race.

The move followed months of disputes between Chahed and the Nidaa Tounes amid accusations to Mohamed Essebsi, the son of the late president, of seeking to serve his interests.

During his term, Chahed was criticised over “failing” to save the country’s economy and improve the citizens’ living conditions.

Chahed said he wants to split from the old regime, and to empower the Tunisians, especially youth, and to give them hope for a better future.

During an electoral campaign rally on Friday in Kasserine, west-central Tunisia, Chahed left the scene after protests over his government performance in the past years, as people called for his departure.

Abdel Fattah Mourou

Ennahda, described as Tunisia’s largest and moderate Islamist party, also named its candidate for presidential elections for the first time since the 2011 revolution.

Mourou, a 71-year-old lawyer, is acting currently as the interim speaker of the parliament after Mohamed Ennaceur, who was sworn in as Tunisia’s interim president following Essebsi.

He is considered as one of the most prominent historical leaders and founders of the Islamist movement in Tunisia.

Mourou worked as a judge until 1977, then he became a lawyer.

He left Ennahda party after he was apprehended in 1991 and spent two years in prison. In 2012, he returned to Ennahda and the political scene after toppling Ben Ali. 

Mourou, a Beethoven fan known for his passion for music and with moderate thoughts, pledged to be the president of all Tunisians, not only a president for Ennahda supporters.

In an interview with Al-Hurra, Mourou pledged to maintain what was achieved regarding women’s rights, adding that all the laws and darts issued by the parliament are considered as “acquis of Tunisian people.”

Abdelkarim Zbidi

Zbidi, 69, was the defence minister under the government of Chahed since 2017. He submitted his candidacy papers as an independent last month. He is backed by the Nidaa Tounes and the Afek Tounes parties.

Since 1981, Zbidi, a doctor, served in several posts under the rule of Tunisian presidents Habib Bourguiba, Bin Ali, and Essebsi. 

Zbidi holds a PhD in medicine from the Claude Bernard University Lyon 1, France. Following the 2011 uprising, he was appointed as the defence minister under the government of Mohamed Ghannouchi until he quit in March 2013.

He said in a recent interview with Reuters that he intends to amend the constitution if he is elected as president, as he wants to end “the division of power between the prime minister and the head of state.”

Zbidi was seen as one of the most serious rivals to Youssef Chahed

Moncef Marzouki 

Marzouki was named by Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly to be the first president following the 2011 revolution. He was a human rights activist and was known for his opposition to Ben Ali.

 

Marzouki was born on 7 July in 1945 in Grombalia. He holds a PhD in medicine in 1973 from Strasbourg University in France and specialised in Internal Medicine and Neurology.

 

Marzouki lectured in medicine at the Medical University of Sousse until he was fired in 2000 for his political activity. In 1980, he joined the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights, which he led in 1989, according to his biography on his website. 

 

He is also an author of several works on political philosophy. He is the founder of the centre-left Congress Party for the Republic (CPR). 

 

Marzouki immigrated to France and spent two decades in exile before returning to Tunisia in 2011, days after Ben Ali fled the country. 

In the 2014 elections, Marzouki lost polls with 44.32% to 55.68% for Essebsi. 

Nabil Karoui

Karoui, a businessperson and owner of the private channel Nessma TV, was arrested over charges of money laundering and tax evasion just weeks before the vote. 

The 56-year-old media mogul is one of the main candidates competing for the presidency.

Karoui’s party, Heart of Tunisia, said that the apprehension is meant to exclude him from the election race. However, the arrest has not prevented him from remaining a candidate in the polls.

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