Tunisia Urges More to Vote in Landmark Presidential Election

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(Bloomberg) -- Tunisians voted Sunday in elections featuring two-dozen presidential candidates, with authorities in the birthplace of the Arab Spring urging greater participation amid signs of political apathy.

It’s a show of political freedoms rare in the Arab world, where only Tunisia has emerged from the maelstrom of protests, coups and civil wars with a viable democracy. But the sheer variety of candidates and concern over turnout also pointed to rumbling discontent in the North African nation. Since 2011, it has been hobbled by political infighting and sporadic militant attacks that have sapped the economy.

Turnout was about 28% by 3 p.m., the electoral commission said, after calling on more of Tunisia’s 7 million registered voters to participate. Polling stations closed at 6 p.m with results expected by Sept. 17. There’ll be a second round by November if no candidate gets more than 50% of votes.

In a part of the world where elections are often a foregone conclusion, there’s little consensus on who’ll win. Four candidates -- Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, jailed TV mogul Nabil Karoui, devout lawyer Abdelfattah Mourou and Defense Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi -- are seen as favorites. Two thirds of Tunisians accuse past governments of doing little to help them, suggesting victory may go to whoever offers a clean break.

Tunisia Urges More to Vote in Landmark Presidential Election

“The number of solid contenders with very different backgrounds is striking,” said Sarah Yerkes, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “People, not just in Tunisia, but globally, seem to be fed up with traditional politicians and traditional political parties.”

That feeling was echoed by Etab Ayari, a 20-year-old student who was sitting in a cafe on Tunis’ main boulevard rather than going to cast a ballot. “I’m not convinced by any candidate -- none of them deserves my vote,” she said. “Nothing about our bad situation is going to change, and I believe most young people think like me.”

New Direction

The vote comes as the nation of 11.5 million people seeks a new direction, and after the death in July of its first freely elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi, brought more uncertainty. The veteran politician took office in 2014 following an election in which about 60% of registered voters took part. He promised unity in the wake of fiery debates about the role of Islamic law in the constitution that had put Tunisia on the brink of chaos.

Tunisia found some stability, though its tourism- and agriculture-led economy saw continued turmoil. Loan payouts from the International Monetary Fund bring relief, but depend on politically sensitive cuts to subsidies and public wages that a firebrand union has consistently opposed. Unemployment remains stubbornly above 15%.

The president has the role of elder statesmen for a five-year term, with a say in defense and foreign policy. While the prime minister and parliament hold greater clout, the vote will be a strong indicator for the Oct. 6 legislative election.

Secular History

Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party had become Tunisia’s main centrist option and a balance to Ennahda, the moderate Islamist group that was banned under ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Successful in prior elections, Ennahda’s been dogged by suspicions it plans to subvert the country’s long history of secularism.

But Nidaa has since split, its one-time premier Chahed, 43, now seeking the presidency with his own party. He’s promising to liberalize the economy, and in comments to Bloomberg touted success in taming inflation and raising the central bank’s reserves as his government tried to fix a situation inherited from other short-lived administrations.

Ennahda, meanwhile, says its days of preaching are over. The party’s first-ever presidential candidate Mourou, a genial 71-year-old lawyer who once sang Beethoven’s version of ‘Ode to Joy’ on local TV, is running on a conservative platform of encouraging foreign investment and slashing bureaucracy. By joining coalitions and compromising, the party says it’s essentially gone mainstream.

Tunisia Urges More to Vote in Landmark Presidential Election

The election run-up has seen another landmark for the Arab world: televised debates in which all but two of the 24 candidates participated. About 3 million people reportedly watched.

Sadok Hammami, a Tunisian political analyst and media, said that the viewing figures might not automatically translate into a healthy turnout. He criticized the lack of substantive debate over policies. “It’s an election on personality,” he said. “Is he a good speaker? Is he stuttering?”

Character, Consensus

One young person who did vote, Malek Chebbi, said her choice of Mourou was based partly on his character and search for consensus. “He practices politics intelligently and respects all opinions,” the 22-year-old said at a polling station in central Tunis.

Discontent over the status quo and political wrangling isn’t hard to find in both the upscale and more ramshackle neighborhoods of the capital.

At a school in Ettadhamen, a working-class area of narrow alleys and dirt roads, retired soldier Omar Ben Hussein Al-Hdhili, 78, said he was voting for Zbidi: a “patriotic and disciplined” man who’s “the only one who can reform Tunisia.”

Running as an independent, but backed by the remaining part of Nidaa, Zbidi, 69, has accused an unidentified “mafia” of misdirecting the country, pledging to restore security and establish a long-awaited constitutional court. Tunisia’s army, unusually for the region, has traditionally kept out of politics and often sides with protesters.

Tunisia Urges More to Vote in Landmark Presidential Election

The biggest beneficiary of anger at the status quo could be Karoui. The owner of Nessma TV, he gained fame as a self-proclaimed champion of the poor with his shows where he distributed charity to some of Tunisia’s most disadvantaged areas. He was arrested in late August in connection with money-laundering allegations. Courts have refused appeals for his release and his lawyer said Karoui recently began a hunger strike.

Tunisia Urges More to Vote in Landmark Presidential Election

The 56-year-old’s Heart of Tunisia party calls it an attempt to crush a popular upstart. Parliament this year made a failed bid to introduce legislation to disqualify candidates linked to charities -- a step that would have affected Karoui. A conviction would remove him from the race, though any trial may come long after the vote.

For Jouhar Oueslati, a mechanic in Intilaka, a working-class neighborhood in northwest Tunis, Karoui is “the Nelson Mandela of Tunisia” who’s generous to those in need. “He will win and he’ll be our first jailed president,” the 41-year-old said.

The mogul is more commonly dubbed the Arab equivalent of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. In any event, Karoui’s grand pledges to eradicate poverty make him a serious challenger, according to Carnegie’s Yerkes.

“We shouldn’t underestimate name recognition and people’s belief that a rich guy will be best suited to help improve their own economic situation,” she said. “We have seen that model play out in Washington and in Europe.”

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