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Middle East Monitor Talks to IRI's Djordje Todorovic about Tunisia's Election

December 19, 2014

Tunisia's presidential climate heats up
Middle East Monitor
By Christine Petre

As Tunisia's presidential runoff draws ever closer, the political campaigning has stepped up a gear, and has been full of smearing, aggressive rhetoric, media gossip and political lobbying. Opposition has divided the country in what seems set to become a tight race.

As neither of the running presidential candidates managed to receive more than 50 per cent of the required votes on 23 November, a runoff between the two strongest candidates has been scheduled for 21 December. The country's third election this year will decide whether veteran politician and Nidaa Tounes leader, Beji Caid Essebsi, or his opponent, the former human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, will serve as the country's president for the coming five years. In the first presidential round Essebsi received the majority of votes, gaining 39 per cent of the vote and closely followed by Marzouki with 33 per cent.
 
As expected, the electoral campaign period that began last Tuesday and finishes today has seen harsh political rhetoric and as Election Day draws ever nearer the campaign climate has been heating up.
 
Harsh political rhetoric
With an increasingly intensified political climate the rhetoric has sharpened throughout the presidential campaigning, including defamatory public speaking from both political camps. Essebsi continues to accuse Marzouki of supporting terrorism, accusations partly based on the increase of radical violence during his years as president under the Ennahdha-led Troika government. The Nidaa Tounes leader went so far as to label all Marzouki's supporters "terrorists". Marzouki, on the other hand, charges Essebsi with being authoritarian and bringing back the old regime under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
 
"Essebsi's victory [at the polls] would bring the country back to square one and ensure the return of the old regime, in which case Tunisia would lose everything that it has achieved in the three years since the revolution," Marzouki declared during a political rally in Beja in the northern part of the country.
 
Such slanderous rhetoric is not unique to Tunisia and common during two-candidate campaigns, explained Tunisia's resident country director for the International Republican Insitute, Djordje Todorovic. "Both campaigns went out of their way to explain, in a direct or indirect way, how their opponent has a bad history, health, age or management skills," outlined Todorovic, before adding, "I didn't hear much about what they have to offer or what they will do to contribute to the transition in Tunisia."
 
Todorovic also expressed his concerns that such political mud-slinging may be yet another factor that might inspire Tunisians to abstain from voting on Sunday. Low voter turnout has been an ongoing concern throughout the election period. Defamatory rhetoric also increases the risk of violence, especially at times of close election results. The upcoming election is believed to become a tight race but, "I think that Tunisians will be as wise as they have been in the years after the revolution and that they will show restraint and avoid conflict," concluded Todorovic.
 
Political analyst Habib M. Sayah deems the political campaigning "fairly fair", but fears a wave of violence from the League of the Protection of the Revolution (LPR) should Essebsi win. The movement took a very aggressive stance in the beginning of the election period and one of its leaders promised a bloodbath if Essebsi gained the majority of votes on Sunday. LPR has been involved in a number of violent protests and has jihadi ties, explained Sayah. The grass-roots movement has behaved well thus far; however, they represent an important force that "may refuse to recognise the election result should Essebsi win."
 
Political lobbying
The support of LPR has been important for Marzouki's progression in the presidential campaign up to this point. Winning the support from other political parties and presidential candidates has become essential for the candidates' expansion beyond their already existing voter base.
 
Despite the fact that the Islamist party Ennahdha continues to publically claim neutrality, and abstain from giving their supporters voting orders, most of the party's supporters are believed to vote for Marzouki who was a human rights activist during the Ben Ali regime and is considered a figurehead of the revolution.
 
On the other hand, the leftist party The Popular Front has urged its supporters not to vote for Marzouki, portraying him as an Islamist politician and criticising him for his inaction during the country's upsurge of radical violence since the revolution. However, the party also criticised Nidaa Tounes, arguing that the secular-leaning party is now hosting a number of old regime figures. In addition, the centre-right party Afek Tounes, as well as business man Slim Riahi and his party The Free Patriotic Union (UPL) have publically announced their support for Essebsi.
 
Media and freedom of expression
While both candidates consider themselves targeted by the media, the state-owned media have remained fairly objective, argued Sayah. The private TV and radio stations, on the other hand, have clearly taken partisan lines. Although the number of media channels in support of the two candidates is fairly balanced, it is those supporting Essebsi that are generally most widely watched. This includes Nessma TV, says Sayah, who "may claim objectivity but they are clearly biased."
 
Along with such biased media coverage there has been a crackdown on freedom of expression on social media platforms, including Facebook, says blogger Raed Chammem. Chammem has documented how popular Facebook profiles were suddenly subject to a large number of reports resulting in the closure of their accounts after expressing political opinions. "A couple of dozen profiles" have been affected, argues Chammem who knows most of the people personally or virtually. Most of them are influential Facebook bloggers including "Big Trap Boy", "Mouskou Mouksou" and "Ben Trad". Chammem concludes that, based on his observations, most of the suspended accounts had expressed criticism of Marzouki.
 
On the other hand, critics of Nidaa Tounes fear that if Essebsi becomes president the country will slide back to old authoritarian manoeuvres as his political party comes to dominate the fledgling democracy's political scene. Many leftist activists argue that Nidaa Tounes is simply another incarnation of former president Ben Ali's party Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), since many former RCD members joined the two-year old Nidaa Tounes in 2011. Rapper El General is an artist who has aimed criticism at Essebsi and Nidaa Tounes. In one of his music videos he sings, "O RCDists... we thought we'd got rid of you but you've had the nerve to return." The popular artist has expressed his support for Marzouki and performed at one of his political rallies in Menzah, a suburb to Tunis.
 
A north-south division
The two candidates' support has geographically split the country. Essebsi is backed primarily in the northwest, including the bigger coastal cities, while Marzouki is dominating in the south and central regions. "I think that the support for Essebsi comes mainly from the better-off secular voters whose priority issue of concern is security and who fear changes," declared Todorovic. Marzouki on the other hand is attracting the more conservative and marginalised voters who don't feel represented by the political elite. Marzouki appeals to the ones "who care about regional developments and the continuation to complete the transitioning of the society," concluded Todorovic.
 
Youth: A decisive voice?
Many young voters have boycotted the elections, feeling disillusioned with the country's post-revolutionary development. However, a last attempt by youth organisations to reach out to Sunday's young voters include youth debates and online petitions that are trying to encourage Essebsi and Marzouki to prioritise young voters' political demands.
 
However, journalist Farah Samti believes the voter turnout among the youth may be lower on this third round of election. "Many of the people I talked to, including my own friends, will either not be voting or will be voting blank because they don't like either Essebsi or Marzouki," she said, adding that those who do go to cast their vote are likely people who are already strong supporters of one of the candidates. However, while some voters may vote for "the least worse" alternative, Samti fears that many young voters will not go vote at all.