Temporary blog of the CWI

Tunisian elections: Establishment shaken by wave of “clearing out”

Kais Saied. Picture: Wikimedia

By Aymen Baccouche, Tayaar al’Amael al’Qaaedii – CWI in Tunisia

The results of the first round of Tunisia’s presidential elections on September 15, and the legislative elections on October 6, reflected a clear popular mood: a marked “clearing out” of the established parties and those candidates associated with administering the so-called democratic transition since the end of the Ben Ali era. The second round of the presidential election held this week has only made this clearer, dealing a blow to the political elite of the past few years. 

The decline in the turnout is itself an expression of the Tunisian people’s growing distrust of the political institutions established after the fall of the dictatorship in 2011. The total turnout for the parliamentary election was only 41%, well under that achieved last time in 2014 – over 60%. Turnout for the second round of the Presidential poll at 55% was also significantly down on that reported then – 64%.

The rise of the outsider Kais Saied

Constitutional law professor Kais Saied won the presidential election by a landslide, obtaining 72.9% of the vote. His rival, the right-wing populist and rich media mogul Nabil Karoui, won 27.1%, in a result that was described as an “earthquake”, a “slap in the face” or even a “revolution through the ballot box”.

Some parties and analysts find it hard to explain how a law professor, who is not a member of any party, does not have an electoral machine and does not receive funding can achieve such an electoral breakthrough, and, by doing so, raised the expectations of many ordinary people, who do not generally closely follow political affairs. It is noteworthy that around 30% of Saied’s voters had indeed never voted in an election before. Around 90% of 18-25 year-olds voted for him.

Saied was seen as a figure from the political margins, neither coming from official government circles nor those of the opposition with no roots in any of the established political parties. Rather, since 2011, he has often appeared on media programs and talk-shows to give his expertise on legal issues. The real reason his campaign gained traction was his involvement in field work accompanying the activities of the revolutionary youth, such as the sit-in on the Kasbah Square in 2011; his follow-up of the fate of those who were killed and wounded during the revolution; his emphasis on the need to build politics from the bottom up, that is, by establishing a system of grassroots based local councils; his electoral campaign slogan “the people want” and his customized proposals to grant people more legal power, notably by overturning the 2014 Constitution. 

Kais Saied has been active in promoting his project through what he calls “interpretive” campaigns, in direct dialogue with young people. He did not have much of a public media profile, and his constant emphasis on the necessity of achieving the goals of the revolution contrasted with the speeches about “real politics” coming from the majority of candidates.  This gave some credence to his image of being an elite man who is “not like the rest of the elite”. 

The rise of Kais Saied was strengthened by projecting himself as the opposite of the political establishment, that is immersed in corruption, which has taken over the state apparatus, not caring about ordinary people, whose social and economic situation has drastically deteriorated. He leads an austere lifestyle, refused to participate in the 2011 constituent elections, rejected a proposal to assume the premiership in 2013 and then join the Ministry of Justice. In addition, he rejected any form of funding for his campaign (including legal public funding). This made him appear as the candidate with the “cleanest hands” in the eyes of many Tunisians.

During his presidential campaign, Saied maintained his pledge not to form a traditional electoral campaign team like the rest of the candidates, stressing instead the role of volunteer youth led by their own initiative. When roaming about and talking with people,  distributing electoral material printed by young people with their own money, he came across as turning his back on the usual slick electoral campaigns run by the other candidates. Instead his campaigning was used to push the explanatory campaigns using Facebook. In that sense, his victory in the presidential elections was a defeat for the well-oiled electoral machines based on the support of big businessmen and the country’s corrupt and wealthy elite. 

Nonetheless, his economic program is very vague, not to say non-existent. His project to establish direct local democracy fails to point out the connection between the current political system and an economy dominated by a handful of banks, multinational corporations and rich Tunisian families, and does not extend to the need for a democratic control and management of the production of resources by the workers, the peasants and the poor. 

Kais Saied argues that his project “will not be socialism or capitalism, but something else”, without explaining what. He said he would propose laws that “may also concern the economy”, without specifying what they would do. In parallel to this, Saied articulated reactionary positions on social issues, especially his opposition to homosexuality and to gender equality in inheritance, as well as advocating a return to the death penalty. In this way, he tried to attract further votes from the right by surfing on the terrain of the Islamist Ennahda party, and of the most conservative and older parts of the electorate. 

It is noteworthy that Kais Saied led the results in a range of constituencies over the whole country. He came first in the “Tunis 1” district, which covers the heart of the capital and where the most marginalized neighbourhoods are located, unlike the “Tunis 2” district, where the most affluent neighbourhoods are found. Saied was the top candidate in three of the five electoral districts in Greater Tunis, which is usually a stronghold of the Islamists, in the industrial heartland of Sfax, as well as in Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the revolution. He is the only candidate to have performed well in the north, central east (Sahel) and west, apart from the south. This confirms his electorate is distributed across the country.

Ennahda’s “victory”

Abdel Fattah Mourou, the presidential candidate of the right-wing Islamist party, Ennahda, came third with 12.8% of the vote – 435,000 votes, but three weeks later, the party topped 561,000 votes in the legislative elections. This is a difference of 126,000 voters, which shows that part of Ennahda’s electorate did not vote for the party’s presidential candidate, and is likely to have voted for Kais Saied. In the first round, Mourou led only in 7 districts, five of them abroad, and in only two Tunisian governorates, Gabes and Medenine in the south-east, i.e. at the centre of Ennahda’s traditional reservoir of support.

Mourou was the Islamist party’s best hope to present a viable candidate for the presidency. He was not part of the so-called “leaders of the confrontation” to the Ben Ali regime (he resigned from Ennahda in the early 1990s). This made him the most suited to present a conciliatory approach to the ruling class after the revolution. However, this did not materialise for several reasons. Mourou appeared holding multiple titles such as presidential candidate for Ennahda and Deputy Speaker of Parliament in the midst of an electoral wave which rejected all “authority figures”. The party struggled to promote its candidate, who was seen as among the most radical figures in the Islamist party by parts of the public, while being seen as too much of an appeasement figure by the party’s own activist base.

However, Ennahda did not focus its strategy on the presidency, especially in a semi-parliamentary system where the executive power is held by the government that balances between the different parliamentary bodies. The party banked mainly on the Parliamentary election, in which Ennahda came first with 52 seats out of 217 seats. Ennahda is the only party with at least one parliamentary seat in all constituencies, two deputies in the highest number of constituencies – 17, and the only party that is sending more than three deputies from one single constituency. It came second in Monastir, which shows its incursion in the Sahel areas – traditionally the fiefdom of the secular bourgeoisie and of the old regime’s networks of influence. 

Most importantly, despite Ennahda’s lead this time, the number of parliamentary seats it holds continues to haemorrhage after each election – from 89 seats in 2011, 69 seats in 2014 to 52 seats in 2019. It has suffered a sharp decline in the number of voters from 1.5 million in 2011, 950,000 in 2014 to 560,000 in 2019, despite a rise in the number of registered voters in each successive election. In this sense, Ennahda’s “victory” hides a profound erosion of its social base, a consequence of its full integration into the bourgeois system of government.  

Qalb Tounes – ‘Heart of Tunisia’

The candidate of the Qalb Tounes party, the rich media magnate Nabil Karoui, came second in the first round of the presidential elections with 15.6% – 525,000 votes. He grabbed over a million votes in the second round – despite having spent six weeks of the electoral campaign in prison. He was arrested on August 23rd for his involvement in a tax evasion and money laundering case. Although Karoui is undoubtedly corrupt, the timing of his arrest strongly suggested this was orchestrated by the government, in particular by Prime Minister and presidential hopeful Youssef Chahed, to try and neutralise his candidacy. In the parliamentary election, Karoui’s party got 38 seats. 

Nicknamed as either “the Tunisian Berlusconi” or “Karoui Macaroni” (his charity has donated large amounts of pasta to poor Tunisians), Karoui played strongly on the anti-establishment mood and casted himself as the champion of the poor using his private ‘Nessma TV’ channel and his highly publicised charity organization, the Khalil Tunis Association. Karoui trades in the pain of the poor, he exploits the absence of state support and the social ravages of capitalism to promote himself politically. The lead of Nabil Karoui and his party in the north-west of the country (Béja, Jendouba, Siliana and Le Kef) is explained mainly by the construction over years of an extensive network of charitable work in rural areas. 

Voting intentions polled months ago indicated that Nabil Karoui and Qalb Tounes could win the presidential and legislative elections, but their support went down following Karoui’s arrest and the subsequent public revelation of the “lobbying scandal”: his $1-million deal with a Canadian public relations firm aimed at pressuring Western capitals to intervene in the Tunisian elections in his favour. This graphically exposed the fact that although he strived to appear as “anti-system”, so as to ride an electoral wave to punish the political class, by presenting himself as hostile to the powers-that-be and close to the poor and marginalized, Karoui is a fully dedicated representative of the corrupt system and of the political mafia he demagogically denounces. 

Nabil Karoui had hoped to take control of the executive (presidency and government). With the dramatic changes of the last two months, he finds himself out of power, with a party representing the interests of individuals not based on clear political principles. His own ability to survive out of power – since he is being pursued for money laundering and tax evasion – on top of the new criminal case connected to the lobbying scandal is now under question. Karoui’s second place in the parliamentary elections still leaves the question open about his ability to continue his project from the opposition benches, and to maintain the unity of his new-born party, largely centred around himself and his TV station.

The decimation of Nidaa Tounes and the rise of the Free Constitutional Party

Nidaa Tounes (‘Call of Tunisia’) was the party founded by the late President Beji Kaid Essebsi to resurrect remnants of the former regime and Ben Ali’s ex-ruling party officials, and to perpetuate the interests of those Tunisian capitalists connected to the ex-ruling family. It was the main winner of the 2014 elections, and the driving force behind the ‘national unity’ government that met widespread opposition due to its continuous attacks on living standards and collusion with the IMF. Since then, the party has gone through multiple crises and eventually imploded. Several parties have been founded in its orbit by figures who split from the original project. 

In the presidential election, Defense Minister Abdul Karim al-Zubaidi, backed by Nidaa Tounes, came fourth with 10.7%. Behind him was Youssef Chahed, the out-going Prime Minister and head of the ‘Tahya Tounes’ (Long Live Tunisia), founded in January 2019 as a split from Nidaa Tounes, with 7.38%. Significantly, Chahed was the only candidate among the top 7 candidates who did not lead in any constituency, a resounding defeat for the longest serving head of government of the post-revolution era, paying a deserved price for his responsibility for the deteriorating social and economic situation facing the Tunisian people over the past years.

In the legislative elections, ‘Long live Tunisia’ ended in seventh place with 14 seats, ‘Project of Tunisia’ (another split from Nidaa Tounes) won 4 seats, and the paltry 3 seats won by their progenitor Nidaa Tounes confirms the same trend as that observed in the presidential election. Other splinter groups and candidates from Nidaa Tounes collected even more negligible votes.

Meanwhile, the ‘Free Constitutional Party’ with 17 seats is projecting itself as the new expression of, and actual successor of the former ruling party of Ben Ali, the now dissolved ‘Democratic Constitutional Rally’ (RCD). This party refuses to recognise the revolution which it considers a foreign conspiracy. It categorically rejects the current constitution and defends the “achievements” of the former dictatorial regime. The party has gained increasing popularity in recent years by appearing as the most representative political expression of the former regime, capitalising on a wave of nostalgia for pre-revolutionary times created by the impact of deteriorating living conditions, and by reactivating the networks of influence inherited from the ex-ruling party.

Severe defeat for Moncef Marzouki

The presidential election also saw a brutal defeat for former President Moncef Marzouki, who finished in 11th place with only 3% of the vote. He led in just one constituency, Kebili, his hometown, mainly due to tribal allegiances. In general, these elections have shown that regionalism continues to play a pivotal part in the voters’ considerations: a number of candidates topped the results in their cities of birth, significantly ahead of their opponents. Marzouki was severely affected by the popular mood rejecting the “old faces”, as well as by the fact that Ennahda presented a presidential candidate of its own, which played against Marzouki who had based his hopes on a repeat of the 2014 scenario, when he was supported by the Islamist Party. 

Popular Front: towards extinction?

Amongst the most significant feature of these elections, however, is the near electoral wipe-out of the Tunisian left. The Popular Front was a left-wing coalition formed in 2012, consisting of the Stalinist and Maoist parties, mainly the Workers’ Party and the Democratic Patriots’ Movement, or Watad, the so-called Trotskyists – the League of the Workers’ Left (LGO)  and Arab nationalist parties: the Baath Party, the Arab Democratic Vanguard and the Popular Current. It came third in the 2014 presidential election, when their candidate, Hamma Hammami, received 7.9% and won 15 seats in the legislative elections that year.

However, it entered the 2019 presidential and legislative elections suffering from a recent split, with two competing presidential candidates: one backed by the Workers’ Party, the Popular Current and the Baath Party; the other backed by Watad and the LGO. The first, Hamma Hammami, received only 0.7%, while the second, Mongi Rahawi, got a mere 0.1%. 

In the legislative elections, the first group that participated on behalf of “the Front” won no seats while the second part, which submitted lists on behalf of the “Popular Front Party” won just one seat for Mongi Rahawi  in the Jendouba constituency. It is noteworthy that the results of the two lists were poor in most of the districts; even if their votes are combined, they do not reach the quota needed to secure more seats. 

This shows the extent of the collapse of the Popular Front, which had broken through in the Parliament in 2014, partly because of the emotional impact of the assassination of two of its leaders in 2013, but also because it was seen by many workers and youth as the best channel to build a mass left alternative against the threat of reaction. Later, the Front tried to make these assassination cases into a major political issue, based essentially on accusing Ennahda of having linked up with an underground criminal network. The Popular Front often focused its approach on the “Islamist danger” by blurring the class lines with so-called “democratic” or “modernist” bourgeois forces in the process. 

It largely failed to address the burning social questions facing the workers, the poor and the marginalised. It reduced its ambitions to those of being essentially a parliamentary opposition within the so-called democratic transition, deviating from the revolutionary path and moving its centre of gravity away from grassroots labour and social struggles. Its undemocratic internal structure, where decisions were made by a ‘Council of General Secretaries’ bringing together the general secretaries of all its parties, and where each party equals one vote, destroyed any possibility for the activist base to influence strategic decisions and for newcomers to participate in the life of the Front in any meaningful way. This is in addition to the Front’s increasingly public organizational crisis, based on unprincipled in-fighting for power by the leaders of its main components – exemplified by the discussion initiated in March over choosing the Popular Front’s presidential candidate. This was the actual trigger that blew up the coalition in May and led to the dissolution of its parliamentary bloc. 

The problems on the left were public up to the second round of the presidential elections. One part of the Popular Front engaged in sectarian posturing and abstract denunciations of Saied as a “traitor” and the “candidate of Ennahda” – although Ennahda endorsed a vote for Saied, he himself stated that he would “remain independent and be buried as an independent”. The other side opportunistically tail-ended Saied’s campaign without explaining its very serious limits.

Emergence of new political formations, and breakthrough for older ones

Overall, these elections have been marked by what has been called a wave of “dégagisme” – “clearing out”, a term originating from the revolutionary slogan “degage” (“clear out”) directed at Ben Ali and his regime in 2011. As part of this process, a number of new political formations, along with existing but relatively untested parties with up till now a small parliamentary presence, have been suddenly propelled to prominence to fill the vacuum.  

These include the “Democratic Current Party” which achieved a noticeable result in the legislative elections with 22 seats, up from 3 in 2014. In particular, its deputy Samia Abbou stood out through her oversight role in parliamentary sessions, uncovering corruption files against sitting ministers and other big shots. The party has tried in recent years to present an arguably “post-ideological” and “post-programmatic” third way, which defends the Arab-Islamic identity but with a human rights angle to it. The party does not have any revolutionary pretentions, certainly as regards to the authoritarian Arab regimes. But its anti-corruption profile in particular has gained increasing popularity in an atmosphere of rampant political corruption. 

Then there is the “Dignity Coalition” established a few months ago on the initiative of Islamic lawyer Seif Eddine Makhlouf, which gathered a group of candidates who present themselves as “revolutionary” and are distinguished by their strong provincial roots. Almost non-existent in the polling stations, Makhlouf emerged in the presidential race with a discourse that represents a political reaction of anger against the policy of consensus and concessions practiced by Ennahda’s leadership over the past few years in relation to the secular part of the ruling establishment. The rise of this coalition is a reaction by religious conservatives to the promotion of gender equality. 

Further, the “People’s Movement” grew from 3 deputies in the 2014 elections to 15 deputies now. This is surprising as this nationalist movement was a faint voice in the political scene over the past years. However, its electoral rise benefited mainly from the presidential election wave. It did not present a candidate but supported an independent candidate, a nationalist journalist who was close to the ex-Gaddafi regime, named Al-Safi Said, who came sixth in the presidency, just 10,000 votes behind the Prime Minister. The People’s Movement campaigns for the restoration of Tunisia’s relations with the Syrian regime, and for reviewing the relationship with the European Union, particularly with French imperialism. 

The last of the new political actors raised by the electoral wave in the past two months is Lotfi Meraihi, who heads the “People’s Republican Union”, a party not represented in the previous parliament and which many Tunisians had not heard of. Meraihi combined a project of ​economic protectionism and national sovereignty, along with a rather conservative discourse on social issues. Meraihi eventually finished seventh with 221,000 votes (6.5%), confirming the turnout for “new politicians” who were unknown only two months ago, and whose party has moved from the shadows to the spotlight in a very short timeframe. 

Conclusion

The unprecedented fragmentation of the Parliament opens a new stage in the political crisis facing the country, making the formation of a new government coalition a headache for the ruling class. Yet despite the emergence of a myriad of new political formations and candidates, none articulated a program that clearly took up as its main programme the problems caused by the division between capital and labour: against the IMF program of “structural reforms”, privatisations and cuts in subsidies; rejecting the payment of the debt; fighting for better pay and conditions for workers; campaigning for a transformative program of public works to end the ocean of misery in the inland regions and provide decent jobs for the millions of unemployed youth and making the rich pay for the worsening crisis of their system.  

A credible, democratic, revolutionary left alternative, one that uncompromisingly questions the domination of capitalism over the Tunisian people’s lives, uses the electoral arena as a springboard to push forward the struggles of workers and the communities, and skilfully promotes the need for socialist policies in order to satisfy the huge frustration and anger expressed in these elections, was direly lacking. It is to the building of such a left force that the CWI in Tunisia will continue to dedicate itself in the aftermath of these momentous elections.