Crash course in democracy: 26 candidates, 2 weeks

Why We Wrote This

Can an old democracy learn a new trick? One of the world’s youngest, Tunisia, is electing a president from a huge field in a lightning campaign that’s emphasizing policy over partisanship.

Taylor Luck
A volunteer carefully plasters an election poster on his candidate’s designated box in a row of 26 presidential candidates on a street in northern Tunis, Tunisia, on Sept. 5, 2019.

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Just eight years have passed since Tunisia’s Arab Spring uprising overthrew a dictator. Four enthusiastic but charged elections since have led to a rapid evolution in voters’ behavior. Observers and voters say Tunisians are looking beyond party and personalities and focusing on one thing: policies.

When President Beji Caid Essebsi died in office this summer, an unelected caretaker executive took over with a 60-day constitutional mandate. Tunisia’s parties and institutions agreed to push through elections at a breakneck speed for the sake of their country.

That meant sorting through 26 approved candidates in just two weeks of campaigning. Yet many here are suggesting that this up-and-coming democracy may have a lesson or two to offer established Western democracies under siege from populist strongmen, ideological divisions, and disinformation.

Seifeddine Makhlouf, a defense lawyer, is the race’s youngest candidate. “The lesson we Tunisians can teach the world is how to go beyond divisions based on ideology, race, and religion and get to the heart of the matter – the solutions,” he says. “People here have gone through a crash-course on democracy. ... We want a battle of ideas, not a battle of ideologies or personalities.”

A death, a dictator, and a deadline. The combination has kicked off the world’s most whirlwind presidential elections.

But even as Tunisians race to choose among more than two dozen candidates in two weeks of campaigning, there are nevertheless signs that one of the world’s youngest democracies is solidifying in an unstable region.

Among the dynamics in play in the shortened contest: close regulation of media coverage is limiting outside influences on the election and driving campaigns into an intensive grassroots mode; and the sheer number of candidates is prompting voters to focus less on personality and party, and more on policy.

Many here are suggesting that having overcome initial growing pains, this up-and-coming democracy may have a lesson or two to offer to established Western democracies under siege from populist strongmen, ideological divisions, and disinformation.

“The lesson we Tunisians can teach the world is how to go beyond divisions based on ideology, race, and religion and get to the heart of the matter – the solutions,” says Seifeddine Makhlouf, a defense lawyer who at 44 is the race’s youngest candidate.

“People here have gone through a crash-course on democracy and are wiser and more skeptical,” he says. “We want a battle of ideas, not a battle of ideologies or personalities.”

Constitutional crisis

When 92-year-old Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi died in office on July 25, Tunisians, who just eight years ago ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in a democratic revolution, found themselves in an uncomfortably familiar spot.

The country was suddenly ruled by an unelected caretaker executive with a constitutional mandate set to expire in 60 days.

With the still fresh memory of a dictator trampling constitutional norms, all Tunisian parties and institutions agreed to push through elections at a breakneck speed for the sake of their country.

On July 31, the country’s Independent High Electoral Commission announced the date for Tunisia’s presidential elections – September 15 – and gave candidates seven days to register and gather 10,000 signatures.

Impressively, 92 candidates applied; in the end, 26 were approved.

Name your politics and there is a candidate for you: socialists, communists, Islamists, neoliberals, military men, media moguls, billionaires, even a Ben Ali apologist who wants to bring back the former dictator’s party.

There are so many candidates, each has been designated a number. The digits are prominently placed on posters and billboards across the country, often larger than the candidate’s face itself.

Taylor Luck
Tunisian defense minister and presidential candidate Abdelkarim Zbidi (left) greets voters in a cafe in the town of Ras Jebel, Tunisia on Thursday September 5, 2019.

Media minima

But amid the mad dash to the presidency, something else unusual is happening in Tunisia.

Given the sheer number of candidates and the two-week campaigning period, media are barely having an impact.  

With Tunisians fatigued by nonstop television spots, radio ads, and Facebook posts, such factors as grandstanding, personal attacks, quips, and name recognition are barely registering. There are simply too many voices at once.

Following the meddling of Gulf Arab- and Turkey-backed media outlets and social media campaigns that polarized Tunisians in previous polls, the electoral commission is also closely scrutinizing campaign coverage. Outlets are not the only ones held accountable for infringements and fabrications – candidates too face suspension for violations.

Election authorities are even imposing a two-day “electoral silence” – a ban on campaigning and media coverage on the eve of polls and election day to prevent an 11th-hour bombshell from swaying voters.

“This time, the media can no longer give a candidate an advantage; the only way to win votes is through grassroots campaigning on the ground,” says Rihab Trilla, youth campaign coordinator for Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s first post-revolution president, who is running again after losing to Mr. Essebsi in 2014.

“People demand to see candidates in person and be convinced by what they have to say and their sincerity.”

Cafe culture

As in a U.S. primary, Tunisian candidates are crisscrossing the country to towns and villages many have never visited before, literally introducing themselves and fighting for each and every vote.

Yet while U.S. Democratic candidates glad-hand and eat novelty fried food at Midwest fairs and farmers markets, Tunisia’s candidates are descending on cafes.

With Tunisians’ affinity for sitting in cafes from dawn to midnight, they are the perfect place for a captive audience.

An outdoor cafe in downtown Ras Jebel, 40 miles north of Tunis, was the first stop on Thursday for Abdelkarim Zbidi, Tunisia’s defense minister, who despite being an ally of the recently deceased president is largely unknown to the public.

Mr. Zbidi, dressed in internationally recognized politician casual – jacketless, button-down shirt, open collar, no tie, and rolled-up sleeves – shook hands with curious cafe-goers one by one as 20 supporters donning white T-shirts emblazoned with his name chanted “Let’s unite over Zbidi.”

“Make this country safe again!” shouted one supporter. Mr. Zbidi nodded and smiled. “That is my vow.”

Sharif Rafrafi, 69, clasped Mr. Zbidi’s hand and pulled him close for an animated chat, urging him to “make Tunisia strong!”

Smiling politely, the candidate eventually broke free and sat at a table for a shot of espresso.

Mr. Rafrafi came away impressed.

“We want someone who will strengthen the president’s powers and bring back law and order,” says Mr. Rafrafi. He listed the woes plaguing his hometown: crime, smuggling, and drug abuse.

“After seeing Zbidi in action, I believe this is the person for the job.”

A group of four undecided voters who had come to see Mr. Zbidi in the flesh sat in the corner unswayed, nursing their glasses of espresso.

The four men say they have a favorite who champions their causes: firebrand socialist Hamma Hammami, who runs on a platform of nationalizing resources and guaranteeing a living wage.

But due to a number of similar left-leaning candidates borrowing Mr. Hammami’s socialist talking points, they doubt he will make the 500,000-vote threshold needed for a potential second round.

In their words, “he doesn’t have a chance.”

Instead, the four have a greater priority: selecting a candidate with the best chance of stopping front-runner Youssef Chahed. Or, as they call him, “the disaster.” The outgoing prime minister has overseen painful IMF austerity measures that many believe have caused unemployment, inflation, and currency devaluation.

“Unfortunately, we are not casting a vote for the candidate we want, we are casting a vote for the candidate who is the most electable, and least objectionable,” says Munaam Kawash, a 38-year-old science teacher.

“We are learning that having a choice is not the same as having a chance.”

Rapid evolution

Four enthusiastic but charged elections over the past eight years have led to a rapid evolution of Tunisian voters’ behavior.

In the wake of Mr. Ben Ali’s ouster, Tunisians rushed in 2011 toward the group the dictator oppressed the most, voting in the Islamist party Ennahda. Three years later, political paralysis and mismanagement led Tunisians to again vote for the opposite: the centrist, secular Nidaa Tounes party and Mr. Essebsi, a Ben Ali-era minister.

Now, with the government’s economic program failing, observers and voters say Tunisians are looking beyond party and personalities and focusing on one thing: policies.

“The political mood in Tunisia has gone from a pure ideological divide to a more sophisticated policy divide based on criticisms of economic policy,” says Youssef Cherif, a Tunis-based analyst.

There is plenty to debate: nationalizing Tunisia’s gas and phosphates, renegotiating foreign contracts inked in the Ben Ali era, Tunisia’s relations with Europe, climate change, job creation, and amending the country’s parliament-president hybrid system.

“For the first time people are making a vote based not on a reaction to the past or the present, but with an eye to our future,” says Ms. Trilla, the campaign organizer.

Not everything has been smooth. Nabil Karoui, a populist media mogul some have likened to Donald Trump, was arrested at the start of the campaign for allegedly receiving illicit foreign funds – a case he claims was politically motivated. He remains behind bars, but is still on the ballot.

Yet if candidates say Tunisia has lessons for more established democracies, even this up-and-coming model has no answer for one of politics’ age-old challenges.

Ali Qassem, a 58-year-old former police sergeant, shook his head as Mr. Zbidi and his supporters marched past his vegetable stand in Ras Jebel. Two more candidates were scheduled to pass through the town that afternoon.

“Democracy in Tunisia has been 33% successful,” says Mr. Qassem.

“We have won the freedom to vote for whom we want, but we still haven’t figured how to get them to show up after election season.”

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