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Conservative Saied is the new president of Tunisia

The presidential election runoff has ended in victory for Kais Saied is however short of a parliamentary majority.

by Giuseppe Acconcia
12 February 2020
6 min read
byGiuseppe Acconcia
12 February 2020
6 min read

Tunisia has finished voting in the presidential election runoff. Exit polls put the independent lawyer Kais Saied in the lead with 76 percent of the votes, with his challenger, businessman Nabil Karoui, on 24 percent. Turnout data indicate that 50% of voters went to the polls.

The elections were brought forward following the death in July of former president Beji Caid Essebsi, who had taken office after the elections held in 2014 following the protests that took place across the country in 2011, starting a long period of democratic transition. The elections were marked by a low turnout, uncertainty about the results of the parliamentary elections that would pave the way for a coalition government and the victory in the first round of the presidential elections, from among the 26 candidates admitted, of political figures far from the traditional party lines.

Second round candidates

In the first round, Nabil Karoui had won 15.6 percent, while Kais Saied had prevailed with 18.4 percent. The new president-elect, 61-year-old Kais Saied, who gained the support of moderate Islamists from Ennahda and the Democratic Current (Ettayar) on the eve of the second round, launched messages against corruption and integrity in public life. Saied has promised to promote electoral reforms especially in local elections. He has been accused of excessively conservative positions by his opponents for his statements in favor of reintroducing the death penalty, suspended in Tunisia since 1994, and against abolishing the crime of homosexuality

The electoral commission made it known on the eve of polling day that, in the event of defeat, his opponent, Nabil Karoui, 56, would have had the right to appeal because he had been unable to participate in the electoral campaign due to his imprisonment on tax evasion and money laundering charges. Karoui had been released shortly after the announcement of the preliminary results of the parliamentarians and in the midst of the electoral campaign for the second round of the presidential elections on October 10th. The release came after the Supreme Court ruling which canceled his detention on corruption charges that landed him in prison last August. A businessman and owner of the private TV channel Nessma, Karoui stated his support for the most disadvantaged classes, based on his commitment to various charities. Karoui's supporters have repeatedly reported interference by the judiciary the candidate’s affairs during the election campaign, culminating in his arrest.

The death of former president Ben Ali

The parliamentary and presidential election campaign was also marked by the death of the former president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, in power for 23 years until he resigned due to the street demonstrations in 2011. Ben Ali, 83, was sentenced to 35 years for bribery and abuse of office and life imprisonment for the killing of protesters eight years ago. Having spent three months in the hospital, the former Tunisian president died in Saudi Arabia where he lived after having fled the country following the first demonstrations of the so-called Arab Spring.

The parliamentary elections

As in the first round of the presidential elections last September, the parliamentary elections also saw a low turnout and the rise of anti-system political parties, although the traditional parties did manage to contain the damage.

The results of the parliamentary elections that took place on Sunday, October 6, handed a narrow victory to the Tunisian moderate Islamist party Ennahda. However, according to preliminary results, the party of Rached Ghannouchi, who won his seat in Tunis, does not appear to have the majority needed to form a government. A coalition government is therefore possibly on the cards. Ennahda won 52 of the 217 seats, far below the majority of 109 needed to govern. The conservative party Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia) of presidential candidate Nabil Karoui won 38 seats instead.

In the coming days, consultations will open for the formation of a possible coalition government between Ennahda and Qalb Tounes, with the potential support of other political parties in the fragmented new Tunisian parliament. The social-democratic party the human rights activist Mohamed Abbou won 22 seats, while the radical Islamist party Karama, led by Seif Eddine Makhlouf, won 21 seats. Finally, the liberal party of Abir Mouss won 17 seats and achieved a parliamentary seat for its leader in Tunis. The final results are expected to be announced on November 7th.

The changes expected by Tunisians still seem far from being realized in the democratic transition that began after the 2011 protests in the country. Unemployment and inequality led many young people to boycott the election. The uncertain outcome of the parliamentary elections of October 6th could lead to the formation of a coalition government between the moderate Islamists of Ennahda and the conservative party Qalb Tounes, which could create a new period of political instability, although the rise of Kais Saied, the second president of the Republic elected after Beji Caid Essebsi, has confirmed a clear aspiration among Tunisians to fight corruption and bribery.

The author: Giuseppe Acconcia

Giuseppe Acconcia is an award-winning journalist and researcher focusing on the Middle East (London and Bocconi University). Among other publications, he contributed to The Independent, Al-Ahram, Xinhua News Agency and openDemocracy. He has interviewed former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, the Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby, philosophers Samir Amin, Noam Chomsky and Nobel Peace Prize Shirin Ebadi. He has published reportages from the Syrian Kurdistan, Iran, Egypt, Libya and the United Kingdom. He graduated at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London writing a dissertation on the role of the military in politics in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. His articles and scientific publications have been translated into French, Spanish, Turkish, Arabic and Chinese. He taught at the American University in Cairo, he worked as a researcher on North Africa and the Middle East, for the Sakharov Prize and the Euro-Mediterranean cooperation. He is the author of EgyptMilitary Democracy (Exorma, 2014), Pictures from Gihan (Muta Imago, 2013), The Egyptian Spring (Infinito, 2012) and A two days winter (Fara, 2007).