Presidential election in tunisia: first the heart, then the head

After a colorful election campaign: Tunisians vote directly on their president for the first time in the country’s history.

Supporter with candidate Beji Caid Essebsi’s sticker on her cheek. Picture: dpa

"Tunisia, the first democracy of the Arab world!" someone spray-painted on a construction fence on Avenue Bourguiba. This is where the Arab Spring once celebrated its first success – with the fall of the dictator on January 14, 2011. And now there has been a permanent election campaign for weeks: This coming Sunday, Tunisians will go to the polls in the first round of the presidential election, after they already determined their parliament – with the new constitution – at the end of October. For the first time, a head of state in Tunisia will be elected directly by the people.

Oversized portraits of the 27 presidential contenders dominate the streetscape, but in the second round at the end of December, the battle is likely to be decided between two political heavyweights – incumbent Moncef Marzouki, who was installed in October 2011 with the votes of the Islamist Ennahda and two small secular parties, and Beji Caid Essebsi. The 87-year-old challenger is a veteran of Tunisia’s days of independence from France; he served as prime minister in one of the three interim governments since 2011.

It’s an election campaign with all the trimmings: citizens inform themselves on radio, television, the press, on the Internet, on social networks. Or they go to one of the numerous election campaign events. Everywhere in the big halls of the country, the candidates are handing in their hats.

In the Coupule, the sports hall in the north of the capital, former politician Essebsi faces the voters last Saturday. Thousands enthusiastically wave the red flags with crescent and star and the face of their candidate.

The back story: Jan. 14, 2011: After mass protests leave more than 200 dead, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali flees into Saudi exile. Oct. 23, 2011: The Islamist Ennahda party wins the election to the transitional parliament. 13.12.2011: Moncef Marzouki is sworn in as the first democratically elected president. 2013: Murders of opposition politicians trigger a domestic political crisis. A cabinet of experts is appointed in December as part of a national dialogue. Oct. 26, 2014: Parliamentary election following adoption of a new constitution. The secular Nidaa Tounes party wins but relies on coalition partners.

Who is running: Twenty-seven candidates are running in the first round of the presidential election next Sunday, Nov. 23. Incumbent Moncef Marzouki, born in 1945, has also made a name for himself as a human rights activist. Challenger Beji Caid Essebsi, born in 1926, is also head of the Nidaa Tounes party, which won the parliamentary election. Kalthoum Kannou, born in 1959, is the only woman running. The judge wants to become the first "Tunisian, Arab and Muslim" female president. (dpa, taz)

Just no Islamists

This and many other articles were made possible by financial support from the Foreign Research Fund.

On two large screens, a video recalls the turmoil of the transition years: The images of demonstrations and brutal police attacks are meant to appeal to the youth who once drove out dictator Ben Ali. Footage of the few terrorist attacks and of marches by radical Salafists underscores the concerns of many about an uncertain future.

The message is clear: The current incumbent, Marzouki, has failed. What is needed now is a change, a new man at the head of state, one with experience – just like Essebsi, once minister of the interior and later also foreign minister under the first president after independence in 1956, Habib Bourguiba.

Then you can see their "Bajbouj" – Essebsi’s nickname – coming through the long corridors of the sports hall. His step is sure, his gaze steady. He is surrounded by confidants from the ranks of his Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) party, which became the strongest faction in the new parliament in October. He steps onto the podium like an aging Rocky. The national anthem is played; everyone sings along. Essebsi raises his arms and begins his speech "in the name of God, the Almighty and the Merciful.

Asma Chijdi is one of those listening to him, spellbound. "I’m still wavering," says the 21-year-old medical student, even though she already voted for Nidaa Tounes in October’s parliamentary election. "It’s a secular party. I voted for it so that the Islamists of Ennahda would not rule again," she explains. Nidaa Tounes was founded two years ago by veterans, trade unionists, liberals, as well as former members of Ben Ali’s Unity Party, RCD, to counter the Islamists.

"Security, stability, recovery"

After three difficult post-revolutionary years, Chijdi expects "security, stability and economic recovery" from a president. With youth unemployment well over 30 percent, this is an understandable wish. In addition to Essebsi, Chijdi has two other candidates on her list of candidates: the well-known oppositionist and communist Hamma Hammami, who is entering the race for the left-wing alliance "Popular Front," and the courageous judge Kalthoum Kennou, who is well known from the years of dictatorship. "I agree with Essebsi’s program. But his age …" says Chijdi, explaining why she, like many young Tunisians, struggles with him.

Ghasi Ghezal is less hesitant: The 45-year-old owner of a small cafe in the resort town of Sousse goes to all of Essebsi’s events. Of course, he was also in Monastir, at the mausoleum of President Bourguiba, where "Bajbouj" opened his election campaign in the shadow of the Tunisian superfather.

"We need someone to boost the economy, and we need a strong hand," says the cafe owner. Democracy is good, he says, but order is also needed: Under the old regime, "there was no crime." Asked about the candidate’s past, who also served as president of the completely controlled parliament under Ben Ali in the early 1990s, he just waves it off. Essebsi is "an honest person," says Ghezal.

The old man, up on stage, lives up to all expectations. Essebsi speaks sometimes paternally, sometimes combatively, sometimes of a "civil state," sometimes of "Muslim traditions." He promotes "a broad-based government," without ruling out an alliance with the Islamists of Ennahda. The latter have renounced their own candidate and given the base freedom of choice. It is an important vote potential that he does not want to leave completely to his opponent Marzouki.

At the same time, Essebsi also invokes modern Tunisia, which respects women’s rights like no other Arab country. And, of course, he promises security, jobs and an upswing.

Just not the old regime

Again and again, he criticizes the current president for his alleged closeness to the Islamists, even to the radical Salafists. "I, as president, will not receive the League for the Protection of the Revolution in the palace," Essebsi says, recalling a controversial official act by Marzouki.

The League feeds mainly on radical Islamists. It is dedicated to the "fight against all representatives of the old regime" and does not stop at violent attacks against representatives and offices of Nidaa Tounes, but also against leftists and the trade union UGTT. It has since been banned. Some former league leaders have pledged support for Marzouki on the Internet. Essebsi uses this in all his appearances and thus successfully mobilizes in the secular camp.

Meanwhile, some 270 kilometers away, in Tunisia’s second-largest city of Sfax, Marzouki is drawing applause from his supporters in the hall, while thousands protest against him outside. The 69-year-old former human rights activist and secular exiled politician needs the votes of Ennahda, with whom he has so far governed in coalition.

His own party, the Congress for the Republic (CPR), lost 25 of its 29 parliamentary seats in October. The president warns against "a return to the old regime," referring to his challenger Essebsi, whose party he likes to use the word "taghout," a vocabulary used by radical Islamists for "arch-enemies" who must be destroyed.

Medical student Chijdi still can’t decide which of her three favorites she will vote for next Sunday. "The first round with the heart and the second with the head," she says. No matter what she does now, for December she knows no doubt: "Marzouki? Never!"

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