This is a guest post by Chiara Loschi from University of Turin and the Institut de Recherche sur le Maghreb Contemporain in Tunis
On 21 December Tunisia elected its first president since the 2011 uprisings. Béji Caid Essebsi, founder of Nidaa Tounes party, won the second round of the presidential election, winning 55.68% of the vote in the run-off poll (1,731,529 votes). His competitor, the interim president, Moncef Marzouki, ex-leader of the Congrès pour la République party, gained 44.32% (1,378,513 votes). The difference between them in the first round was just 6%. Turnout was 60.11%, a bit less than the first round. Northern and coastal areas mostly supported Essebsi, while the rest of the country supported Marzouki, who was unofficially backed by the Islamist movements and Nahdha.
Nidaa now controls both the government and the presidency. However, even though the legislative election was held at the end of October no government has yet been formed, although the Constitution states that after the official proclamation of results a new government has to be appointed. The leaders of Nidaa decided to wait for the results of the presidential election before consolidating alliances in the Assemblée des Représentants du Peuple (chamber of deputies). There were preliminary discussions and debates, but they ended as soon as the presidential electoral campaign started.
The second round presidential candidates campaigned on similar issues: unifying the country, security, and the need to improve the country’s socioeconomic problems. The election did not see the emergence of new people, but it did see a change in political communication, the relationships between politicians and media, and a general “acceptance of the rules of the game” by all actors.
Both candidates tried to overcome regional differences and win the support of economic and political elites at the national level. Essebsi dwelt upon international relations and the importance of economic restructuring. He relied on unhappiness with the Nahdha transitional government. The appeal to stability and efficiency found a ready ear among the bourgeoisie and the middle class of the northern regions: they are worried about what they see as the chaos and anarchy of the country’s institutions and everyday life. For these electors, the priorities are now the stability of institutions, security, and bureaucratic apparatus. With several members of the former Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique in senior positions within the party, Essebsi is the natural successor to Habib Bourguiba, who is largely considered as the father of the nation.
Marzouki could rely upon the support of Nahdha party. He portrayed himself as someone who could provide real change for the presidency and the country as a whole and campaigned against what was portrayed as the resurgence of the old regime represented by Nidaa Tounes. Marzouki’s supporters shared the belief that Nidaa wants to return to an authoritarian regime. Marzouki could also count on the support of middle class and economic elites in the central and southern regions.
Both candidates also emphasized the importance of younger voters. Essebsi decided to start his campaign at l’Etoile du Nord, an internet café close to Avenue Bourguiba, which was largely attended by young activists and bloggers. A debate arose around the drugs issue, as Tunisian law on drugs consumption specify a one-year minimum jail sentence and a $600 fine. Opponents claimed the law is an excuse to round-up activists and that it disproportionately affects poor and working class people and leads to overcrowding in prison. Although he did not support the legalization of drugs, Essebsi tried to ride on the wave of this liberal debate by emphasizing the need to defeat drug dealers. Marzouki was more cautious, calling for a deep analysis of the “problem” and a rationalization of the law.
The candidates also exploited the 17 December anniversary of the jasmine revolution. Marzouki attended a campaign meeting in Sidi Bou Zid, the place where the Revolution began. Essebsi went to pay homage to the family of a Lieutenant of the Army, Socrate Cherni, who died in October 2013 during a conflict against Ansar al Sharia militants. These choices are linked to the issue of the Revolution’s martyrs: everyone has his own martyrs and his own revolution.
The Nahdha party, as mentioned above, unofficially supported Marzouki. After a long delay, the communist Front Populaire declared that it was necessary “to bar the way to Moncef Marzouki”, and to religious extremist movements as a whole, implicitly calling for people to vote either for Essebsi or to issue a blank vote.
Nidaa still needs to forge a coalition in order to form a government, and the party has just two options: it can try to form a grand coalition with Nahdha, or form a coalition with small secular parties such as UPL and Afek Tounes, probably excluding the Front Populaire. Now that the presidential election campaign is over, everything is possible, including the grand coalition with Nahdha. The second round results showed that the electoral map is split in two. The World Bank and the IMF are still pressing Tunisia to implement urgent economic restructuring, while ordinary citizens are feeling the effect of price increases. A grand coalition is feasible in the context of national unity and economic reform. However, the religious cleavage is still strong and captures problems that date back to 2011 and before.
Chiara Loschi is a PhD Student in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Turin (Italy) and a PhD Fellow and small grant holder 2014 at Institut de Recherche sur le Maghreb Contemporain (IRMC Tunis).