The second round of Tunisia’s presidential election is likely to be a close fight after the results of the first round, announced today, showed a tighter-than-expected finish between the veteran secular-nationalist politician, Beji Caid Essebsi, and the incumbent president, Moncef Marzouki. Opinion polls had suggested that Essebsi was likely to emerge with a commanding lead, and much of Tunisian political opinion had viewed him as a clear favourite after his party, Nidaa Tounes, emerged as the biggest winner in parliamentary elections last month. However, the final tally of Sunday’s presidential vote gave Essebsi 39 percent and Marzouki 33 percent, with the leftist Hamma Hammami a distant third with 8 percent
The final tally of Sunday’s presidential vote gave Essebsi 39% and Marzouki 33%, with the leftist Hamma Hammami a distant third with 8%.
The second round, which takes place on 28 December, is now likely to feature a fierce competition between Essebsi and Marzouki to capture the votes that were divided between the large number of other candidates. And the two men will campaign on starkly opposed positions.
Essebsi, who served as a senior government official under Tunisia’s first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba, represents stability and experience. His Nidaa Tounes party, which he founded in 2012, was explicitly designed to balance against the Islamist Ennahda party, which Essebsi portrayed as a threat to Tunisia’s distinctive secular and modernising heritage. Nidaa Tounes’ victory in the parliamentary election was, above all, a rejection of Ennahda’s record in government since the revolution, a period marked by economic stagnation and political unrest. Esssebsi launched his presidential campaign in Bourguiba’s hometown, Monastir.
The second round, which takes place on 28 December, is now likely to feature a fierce competition between Essebsi and Marzouki to capture the [divided] votes.
Marzouki was widely thought to have lost popularity during his period as president, when his party CPR was one of two junior coalition partners to Ennahda. During his presidential campaign, he sought to capitalise on fears that, if Essebsi won the presidency while his party controlled the government, Tunisia risked lapsing into counter-revolution. Nidaa Tounes has attracted criticism in Tunisia for including a number of political figures linked to the authoritarian RCD party of the immediate pre-revolutionary president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Marzouki has explicitly presented himself as the man who will preserve and consolidate the goals of the revolution. The results of the first round show that this appeal had some resonance.
A key factor in the presidential election has been the decision of Ennahda not to put up a candidate – a decision that was taken after careful consideration and much internal debate. Ennahda has also avoided endorsing any of the candidates, saying only that it recommended its followers to choose a candidate who guaranteed democracy. There is little doubt that Ennahda supporters voted for Marzouki in significant numbers.
The result will be determined in large part by whether the country’s people prefer to preserve a balance of power in government or to see a strongly-led state deal with security threats.
During the coming campaign, Essebsi is likely to step up efforts to link Marzouki with Ennahda in an attempt to mobilise an anti-Islamist majority to propel himself into the presidential palace. After the first round voting, Essebsi said in a radio interview: “It must be known that those who voted for Mr. Marzouki are Islamists… He is also supported by jihadist Salafists and the ‘League of Defence of the Revolution’, which are all violent parties.” Essebsi has also called on Ennahda to announce which candidate it supports in the second round – an appeal that Ennahda would be well advised to reject. For his part, Marzouki has challenged Essebsi to a head-to-head debate, though there are indications that Essesbi aims to avoid this.
There is clearly a danger that the run-off could see a rise in political polarisation around the issues of Islamism, political violence and counter-revolution, in line with trends that have derailed transitions elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. Even though fear of terrorism is running high in Tunisia, it must be hoped that the candidates will avoid taking political opportunism to an inflammatory level, in order to hold on to the spirit that has guided the elections so far. The result of the second round will be determined in large part by whether the country’s people prefer to preserve a balance of power in government or to see a strongly-led state deal with security threats.
This article follows and builds upon a recent publication by Anthony Dworkin titled Tunisia's elections and the consolidation of democracy.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.