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Tunisia’s new president is an independent, but he will have to work with the political parties

Tunisia’s independent candidate Kais Saied holds a press conference after has secured more than 72% of votes in the presidential election held on Sunday, said an exit polls agency, in Tunis, Tunisia on 13 October 2019. [Yassine Gaidi - Anadolu Agency]
Tunisia’s independent candidate Kais Saied holds a press conference after has secured more than 72% of votes in the presidential election held on Sunday, said an exit polls agency, in Tunis, Tunisia on 13 October 2019. [Yassine Gaidi - Anadolu Agency]

Kais Saied is the new President of Tunisia after a landslide election victory with 72.71 per cent of the votes cast. Saied received 2.7 million votes while his rival, businessman and media mogul Nabil Karoui, polled just over a million. The Election Commission confirmed the results on 14 October, noting that the 55 per cent turnout was a little higher than expected.

The question now is how Saied, a former law professor, is going to govern the country of more than 11 million people with a myriad of problems, including high unemployment, the terrorist threat and, above all, a weak economy. Even as an independent, he will still have to work with the political parties.

The president elect ran a political campaign based not on a prepared political manifesto nor a political party but on one all-encompassing slogan: “The people want”. This appeared to cause an upsurge of nostalgia among Tunisians, reminding them of their revolution in 2011 that brought down former President, the late Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Saied was little known a few months ago, with no government experience and almost no funding. He distanced himself from all political parties and counted on the people. His campaign was a unique experiment in Tunisia’s political landscape where volunteers organised everything from the beginning all the way to this overwhelming victory. Young Tunisians, in particular, appeared to favour Kais Saied, because he represents their dreams of the “Jasmine Revolution”. All such aspirations failed to materialise in the post-revolution political wrangling among the various factions, which gave way to corruption, ineffective government and a lack of economic progress; unemployment is estimated at 15 per cent. If the “Jasmine Revolution” was the spark against tyranny, then the election of conservative Kais Saied is the beginning of a new Tunisia where the people are indeed the source of political legitimacy.

READ: Tunisians celebrate democracy by calling for end to Sisi’s regime 

Yet the new president, nicknamed “Robocop”, is facing the complicated task of running the country. The legislative elections held on 6 October failed to produce a clear winner capable for forming a majority government. Picking the right person to lead the government is the first task awaiting the new president after his inauguration later this month.

Tunisia’s constitution leaves very little for the president to do in the internal affairs of state which are left to the government. Although article 62 of the constitution gives a priority to laws proposed by the president to be considered by parliament, getting them adopted requires the head of state to secure sufficient support from MPs.

Tunisians gather to celebrate the victory of Tunisia’s independent candidate Kais Saied after he has secured more than 72% of votes in the presidential election held on Sunday, said an exit polls agency, at Habib Burgiba Street in Tunis, Tunisia on 13 October 2019. [Yassine Gaidi - Anadolu Agency]

Tunisians gather to celebrate the victory of Tunisia’s independent candidate Kais Saied after he has secured more than 72% of votes in the presidential election held on Sunday, said an exit polls agency, at Habib Burgiba Street in Tunis, Tunisia on 13 October 2019. [Yassine Gaidi – Anadolu Agency]

Ennahda Party won 69 seats in the new parliament, while Nabil Karoui’s Heart of Tunisia Party secured 38. Even bringing those two unlikely bedfellows together to form a government will not produce the necessary majority of 109 seats in the 217-seat legislature. To overcome this hurdle, complex political negotiations are already underway, with the new president being a possible victim of the political wrangling as he does not belong to any political group at the moment.

Once this matter is solved, the new president will face the question of exercising his powers granted by the constitution. Article 77 gives the president of Tunisia a dominant role in security issues and foreign policy. As a presidential candidate, Kais Saied neither made any pledges to the electorate nor published any manifesto, so it will be interesting to see how he performs now that he is president. During his campaign and in televised debates, he gave some indications of what his foreign policy might be. If such hints are anything to go by, then Tunisian diplomats should prepare for rather active and unusual roles. In one TV debate, two days before the country went to the polls, Saied rejected any idea of contacts with Israel, calling them “high treason”, while arguing that there is no such thing as “normalisation” with the Zionist state. “Anyone who deals with an entity [Israel] that made an entire nation [the Palestinians] homeless [is a traitor],” he insisted. This is going to be a hard sell against the current trend in the region.

Asked if he would allow Jews holding Israeli passports to visit the historic El-Ghriba Synagogue on Djerba Island he said, “Israeli passports no. No Israeli passports.” Perhaps anticipating accusations of anti-Semitism, he spoke of how his father used to accompany Gisèle Halimi – a left wing Tunisian Jew who is now a French citizen— to school during World War Two to protect her from the Nazi soldiers.

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With regard to neighbouring Libya, Saied said that he wants a more active role for Tunisia in mediation between the different factions. He was also critical of foreign countries for meddling in Libyan affairs and fuelling conflict. Africa and the Arab Maghreb Union are also expected to dominate the new president’s foreign policy if, of course, he gets his way after the inauguration ceremony.

On national security and how to tackle the increasing terrorism challenges, as a candidate Saied emphasised the importance of the strategies currently in place while calling for a birds eye view of the issues. However, he rejected as unconstitutional the idea of special courts to handle terrorist cases.

Will Kais Saied the president be different from Kais Saied the candidate? He must be, otherwise he stands little chance of succeeding in delivering on anything that he believes Tunisians aspire for. Elected as an independent and without any pledges to measure his performance against, it’s a wait and see game.

Should he go on to be victimised by the ideologically-entrenched parliamentarians, where party loyalty sometimes takes precedence over loyalty to the country, those Tunisians who elected Saied will definitely take note. Furthermore, as the elections have shown, when people are aware of political games, they tend to punish those whom they perceive to be behind them, whether individuals or political parties. With an independent about to be inaugurated as President of Tunisia, the latter appear to be a favoured target.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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