Tunisia's presidential elections: The onset of a constitutional crisis

Tunisia's presidential elections: The onset of a constitutional crisis
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Rejection of the political status quo has led to a wave of shocking elections across the globe. The Tunisian presidential election looks to follow suit. Two political outsiders will proceed from the first round to a second-round run-off in October: Kais Saied, a law professor who won 18 percent of the vote, and Nabil Karoui, a questionably-jailed media magnate who won 16 percent of the vote.

Tunisia is the sole democracy to remain from the Arab Spring, and Washington has partnered with the country to sustain that hopeful transition and build stable democratic institutions and practices. Since 2011, the U.S. has committed more than $1.4 billion to support Tunisia’s transition, which, some observers believe, is beginning to crumble.

Prior to the first elections, there was speculation that younger voters, disillusioned with mainstream political parties and the inefficiencies of democracy, would cast ballots for wild cards and those outside what they see as a corrupt system. Karoui and Saied fit this bill, but their positions couldn’t be any more different.

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Kais Saied is an independent candidate who rose from complete obscurity. Resolutely anti-state, Saied has advocated for the dissolution of parliament and its replacement by local representatives. He is very conservative on social issues, particularly on gender equality and LGBT rights. He has also expressed disagreement with foreign funding of Tunisian civil society groups, to the dismay of Western donor countries.

Nabil Karoui is a pro-business, pro-reform candidate with a sulfurous reputation. In 2011 Karoui aired a film on his television station that was seen by many as anti-Islamic, triggering sometimes violent protests in several cities

After the Arab Spring, Tunisia was praised for successfully navigating its way out of a political crisis, writing a progressive constitution, and creating an inclusive democracy that gave voice to Islamists and progressives alike. But that political consensus is falling apart as voters turn to far-end ultra-conservatism and anti-conservatism to replace the government in which they have lost confidence. The opaque and inefficient nature of this electoral process may lead to a constitutional crisis.

Karoui has been questionably-jailed since August 23. Consequently, he has not received equal time in showcasing his platform. He was barred from participating in radio and television debates, and from voting. A week ago, the court stated that they were “incapable of reviewing the decision of the Indictment Chamber on the arrest of Nabil Karoui.” The investigating judge has repeatedly denied applications for release filed by the candidate’s defense committee.

Truly functioning democratic elections are defined by their transparency, inclusivity and integrity. The inefficiency and lack of transparency in this case impedes Tunisia’s electoral process. 

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Karoui was approved to record direct expression broadcasts from where he is detained, but it is still not enough. The appeal chambers of the administrative court have rejected six legal challenges filed by presidential candidates against the early results of the September 15 elections.

Karoui’s opponent’s positions aren’t fully understood, either. Kais Saied has a reputation as a pragmatist and has talked abstractly about fighting corruption and creating a culture of accountability. But he hasn’t articulated many specific policy proposals.

On September 15th, Islamic party Ennahdha sent text messages to its members to vote for Saied instead of official Ennahdha candidate Abdelfattah Mourou. But on certain issues Saied parts ways with the Ennahdha party. Saied should fully lay out his agenda to voters ahead of the run-off elections.

These elections may be a political turning point in Tunisia. The stakes are high. Unless Karoui is released soon, he will be entitled to appeal against the Independent High Authority for the Election for unfair conditions. This could invalidate the second round of presidential elections.

Given the absence of a constitutional court, this stalemate could imperil democracy in Tunisia. The courts themselves have not helped. Without transparency and accountability to sustain the process set out in the constitution, Tunisia may be heading toward a crisis. To avert such a crisis, both candidates must articulate their full platforms for the good of Tunisian voters.

Sasha Toperich is senior executive vice president of the Transatlantic Leadership Network. From 2013 to 2018, he was a senior fellow and director of the Mediterranean Basin, Middle East and Gulf initiative at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. Jonathan Roberts is a research fellow at the Transatlantic Leadership Network.