Tunisia on edge ahead of tomorrow’s presidential run-off election

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Supporters of Tunisian presidential candidate for the anti-Islamist Nidaa Tounes party, Beji Caid Essebsi attend his last meeting on December 19, 2014 on the Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis, on the last day of campaigning before the second-round of the presidential election to be held on December 21. AFP/Fethi Belaid

By: Ghassan Bin-Khalifa

Published Saturday, December 20, 2014

For the first time in their history, the Tunisians will have to stay up very late tomorrow night before they can learn the name of their new president. Optimists see this as an achievement, while pessimists like to remind them that the next president will rule for five full years (or a maybe less). Some mischievously quip that they intend to vote for 88-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi because they expect him to die soon, after which they would get new elections ahead of their constitutional date.

The ‘pessimistic-optimism’ of the Tunisians does not stop here. Doubts and questions loom heavily over the political landscape. But the most important question seems to be about whether the fledgling democracy – the only one that has succeeded (for the time being according to pessimists) in the countries of the so-called Arab Spring countries – would last.

The concerns have to do primarily with two main issues. First, there is the volatile regional situation, from Syria to Egypt all the way to neighboring Libya, where a brutal civil war is raging allowing some terrorist groups to gain a foothold there. These concerns have been exacerbated by recent threats made by jihadi terrorist leaders in Tunisia, including Abu Bakr al-Hakim, who for the first time claimed responsibility for the assassinations in Tunisia in the past two years.

The second issue has to do with the sharp tensions seen during the electoral campaigns for the run-off round of the presidential elections. The two contenders, incumbent 69-year-old President Moncef Marzouki, and his rival Beji Caid Essebsi, the candidate for Nidaa Tounes, and their supporters have been engaging in relentless mudslinging and punches “under the belt” against each other.

A climate of tension

One of the accusations that the two sides have exchanged is “seeking to divide society and undermine national unity.”

The controversy began in the wake of the last legislative election, in which the Nidaa Tounes coalition (consisting of cadres of the disbanded Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), in addition to former leftists, liberals, and trade unionists) beat its main rival the al-Nahda Party (Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated), Marzouki’s main ally in this election. The results showed Nidaa Tounes ahead in polls, especially in northern provinces, and al-Nahda in the south, with influence shared almost equally in the center. As result, there were comments and analyses regarding this north-south divide, including comments that were unfortunate, while many remarks were used out of context to discredit opponents.

However, the peak of the tension was undoubtedly was when Marzouki called his rival Caid Essebsi, without naming him, al-Taghut, which roughly translates to “tyrant” but is a term used by some jihadists to accuse their opponents of idolatry and justify their murder. Marzouki apologized later for the “gaffe.” On the other hand, Essebsi, in a statement to a French radio station, claimed that Salafi-Jihadists support Marzouki, a self-styled moderate secularist and human rights advocate, as Essebsi said.

This tension was more visible and crude among the two men’s supporters. Marzouki’s supporters have no qualms about describing Essebsi as a demented old man and a “ghool” [monstrous juggernaut], fearing his party would become unstoppable if it adds the presidency to the government and parliamentary majority in its possession. Meanwhile, Essebsi’s supporters have called Marzouki “al-mahboul” (the idiot), having called him “al-tartour” (the lackey), throughout the tenure of the former troika.

The alignments game

After the close results in the first round (39.46 percent of Caid Essebsi versus 33.43 percent for Marzuki), the two contenders have spared no effort to woo the supporters of the candidates who were excluded in the first round. Both men’s strategy is based on fear-mongering.

The supporters of Caid Essebsi portray Marzouki as al-Nahda’s candidate, and say if he remains in office, the violence perpetrated by the Leagues for the Protection of the Tunisian Revolution would continue against opponents, along with the leniency shown with Salafis and terrorism. Meanwhile supporters of Marzouki portray Caid Essebsi as the candidate of the former regime and the disbanded ruling party, and say that his victory would end the democratic process and reinstate the policy of uprooting Islamists and then the rest of the opposition as happened under Ben Ali and now in Egypt.

Despite the exaggeration involved, these accusations are not completely devoid of the truth. Clearly, the al-Nahda popular base and some prominent leaders like clerics Sadik Chourou and Habib al-Lawz, who are close to the Salafis, support Marzouki, who they say is the only one who can prevent their re-incarceration.

This is despite the fact that al-Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi continues to play all sides, having said repeatedly that his movement, which did not put forward a candidate in the first round, stands at the same distance from both candidates. Furthermore, Ghannouchi has not stopped trying to woo “the friend Mr. Beji” to get him to agree to the idea of a national unity government bringing their two parties together.

It is also evident that Nidaa Tounes relies more than any other side on the base of the disbanded RCD (Ben Ali’s party), especially in the countryside, and on financial and media lobbies close to the RCD.

To win over the critical voter block that would decide the results of the second round, Essebsi knows that he cannot count on the support of the smaller parties (the Destourians, liberals, and center-left parties). Similarly, Marzouki knows that he cannot benefit much from the support of the small parties that back him (Islamists and centrists).

For this reason, both candidates are trying to woo the supporters of the Popular Front (the alliance of nationalist and leftist parties), whose candidate Hamma Hammami came third in the first round with about 8 percent of votes.

Huge popular pressure has been brought on the supporters and leaders of the Popular Front. However, Nidaa Tounes has put greater pressure. Some of its leaders, especially former leftists, have sought to remind – if not emotionally blackmail – the Popular Front for the blood of the martyr Chokri Belaid and their previous alliance last year in the Salvation Front, after the assassination of the second leader of the Popular Front Mohammed Brahmi.

This pressure is based primarily on Essebsi’s pledges to “uncover the truth about the assassinations,” as an important segment of the supporters of the Popular Front suspect leaders from al-Nahda were involved, and also accuse Marzouki of “covering up the crime.”

After dragging its feet for the past several weeks, trying to get a pledge from Nidaa Tounes not to form a coalition government with al-Nahda, the leaders of the Popular Front made their final decision on Thursday, calling on supporters not to vote for Marzouki, and giving them the choice to vote for Caid Essebsi. This position caused a great controversy, but it may not be enough to settle the results of a very risky election, as many Tunisians see it.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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