Tunisia gears up for Sunday presidential poll steeped in uncertainty

TUNIS, Sept 14 (NNN-AGENCIES) — Tunisia will hold on Sunday its second
free presidential election since the 2011 uprising that toppled an autocratic regime, with growing uncertainty over who will reach the next round.

Twenty-six candidates are in the race, including the incumbent prime
minister and a media magnate who was arrested just weeks before the polls, as well as a presidential hopeful put forth by an Islamist-inspired party.

Seven million voters are expected to head to the ballot box after a
campaign that largely focussed on social and economic challenges that have
plagued the North African country’s fledgling democracy.

Tunisia has been praised as a rare success story for democratic transition
after the Arab Spring regional uprisings sparked by its 2011 revolution.

Three years later, it held its first post-revolution election, during which
the political fault lines were clear, with Islamists squaring off against modernists.

But this time around, the differences are huge, with a plethora of
candidates — Islamists, secularists, populists and partisans of the toppled
regime — political programmes and issues.

Preliminary results are expected to be announced by the electoral
commission on Sept 17, but the date of the second round, which will
decide the presidency, is not yet known.

Heavyweight candidates include Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and his
nemesis Nabil Karoui, the media magnate arrested on charges of money
laundering just three weeks before the election.

Chahed became the country’s youngest ever head of government in 2016 at age 40.

On Wednesday, the jailed candidate started a hunger strike, according to a
member of his defence team, Ridha Belhaj.

Also in the race is lawyer Abdelfattah Mourou, 71, who was selected to run
by the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party, and Mohammed Abbou, who was
imprisoned under the ousted regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Candidates also include former defence minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, a
technocrat who said he would “restart the social ladder” and make public
services accessible to all Tunisians, if elected.

Two women are also eyeing the presidency, including Abir Moussi, a staunch anti-Islamist lawyer and champion of Ben Ali’s regime.

The presidential campaign wraps up on Friday, but none of the candidates
appears to have stood out despite squaring off in multiple debates that were
broadcast on radio and television.

Around two to three million Tunisians are believed to have tuned in to
three major debates, during which candidates were asked to respond to
questions drawn randomly.

The economic and social hardships that undermine Tunisia’s transition to
democracy took centre stage during the campaign.

The country, hit by terrorist attacks against its key tourism sector and
security forces, has struggled to combat unemployment and bring down
inflation.

Unemployment in Tunisia is at 15 percent, while the cost of living has
increased by more than 30 percent since 2016.

The election was brought forward from November after the death in July of
Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia’s first president democratically elected in
nationwide polls in 2014.

It will be followed by legislative elections, due to take place on Oct 6. — NNN-AGENCIES