Jasmine Foundation Blog: Presidential Elections

All eyes have been on the presidential elections this week. The race is heating up, given the very small gap between the two top candidates Beji Caid Essebsi and Moncef Marzouki, with 39% and 33% of votes respectively.

A war of words has broken out between the two, prompted by Essebsi’s statement on French radio station RMC, that “Those who voted for Marzouki are Islamists, the leaders of Ennahdha, and salafi jihadists. My Islam, it is the Tunisian Islam”.

Marzouki responded in an interview with Le Monde, “When he [Essebsi] describes 1.1 million Tunisians as terrorists, I find that worrying. In this way, he is returning to the same division of society as Ben Ali…The real picture is that there are democrats and anti-democrats. And he is an anti-democrat”.

Meanwhile, the polarization of the political scene, long feared in Tunisia, appears to be deepening. The second largest party in the Assembly, Ennahdha party, had declined to present its own presidential candidate, declaring that it wanted to avoid making the presidential race polarized along identity lines. However, it seems that divisions are emerging along many lines, including regional. Protests broke out across southern parts of the country in recent days in response to denigrating comments by senior Nidaa Touness leaders directed at the South. A number of national organisations have called for calm and warned of the dangers of stoking regional division, including UTICA and the Gabes branch of the UGTT, which issued a statement condemning discriminatory political discourse. The second round of the Presidential elections are due to be held on 28th November – the final result is likely to be close.

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has released this helpful guide about the presidential elections, providing information on candidates, campaign finance rules, and how election disputes will be adjudicated.

Meanwhile, speculation around the shape of the future government continues. Jasmine Foundation has written on the current constitutional dispute around when exactly negotiations over the formation of the new government are required to officially begin under the Constitution. President Moncef Marzouki issued an official request to the head of Nidaa Tounes Beji Caid Essebsi to begin negotiations to form a government, which has been rebuffed by Nidaa Tounes and the National Dialogue. Currently, everyone is waiting for President Marzouki’s response to the  National Dialogue’s official request for him to accept the consensus decision.

As for the challenges facing the new government, Danya Greenfield, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, writes: “Nidaa has three major challenges to overcome: first, maintaining the cohesion of the party after elections; second, forming a government that answers the demands of its base but does not become paralyzed; and third, moving aggressively to deliver economic and social benefits to an impatient and frustrated Tunisian public… It will need to prove that it can respond to the demands of all Tunisians, not just protect the interests of the elite and former ruling party members… Nidaa has four options, but each has a major downside: 1. Nidaa could join with Ennahda, the second largest bloc in parliament with 69 seats, which would provide a solid mandate in parliament; 2. Nidaa could sideline Ennahda and instead form a weak majority with the other smaller parties; 3. Nidaa could form a national unity government that would include representation from all parties or; 4. Nidaa could embrace the model of “cohabitation,” likely a technocratic government without official party affiliation.”

National Constituent Assembly

Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly held its closing session on Thursday November 20th to mark the end of its work. The body, which has been in session for three years, was Tunisia’s first democratically elected assembly. The 217 members of the Assembly were invited to sign the original copy of the new Constitution to symbolize the cooperation of the Assembly members during their mandate.

The President of the Assembly Mustapha Ben Jaafar has issued a formal invitation to the members of the new Assembly of the Representatives of the People to their first session on 2 December 2014.

International Publications and Analyses

In a brief fortheCenter for American Progress, Ariella Viehe argues Tunisia’s political and governing landscape is “still fragile”. She praises the “inclusive approach adopted in Tunisia of not excluding former regime officials…in contrast to the approach in Iraq and Libya”. However, she argues that “a real threat of exclusionary, divisive politics or of subtle co-optation of state institutions—as seen in Egypt and Libya” remains. With regards to the economic challenges facing Tunisia, she argues, “the economic growth demanded by electorate underestimates complex, difficult trade-offs among Tunisian interest groups. Nidaa’s old guard will need to avoid the perception of pushing for reforms that favor the old regime or economic elites, many of whom are the same. The challenges resulting from coalition and opposition politics could slow these desperately desired reforms and disillusion Tunisians with the democratic process.” There is, she argues, also a need to “strengthen checks and balances, particularly in the security and justice sectors and in civil society, to guard against authoritarian tendencies.”


Dafna Rand, Deputy Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS),analyses the main societal tensions that could undermine Tunisia’s democratic progress and provides recommendations for targeted US assistance. On the economic tensions facing Tunisia, she writes, “Given the youth bulge, creating jobs is a national-security priority. The absence of jobs was a major trigger of the 2011 revolution. At the same time, Tunisian society and political life have long rested on a foundation of strong labor unions, which have built the current labor rights that may, in some cases, deter job-creating foreign investors and businesses. In Tunisia, business-versus-labor can be as contentious a societal division as the secular-versus-Islamist cleavage… The U.S. Congress should reconsider the use of a Millennium Challenge Corporation grants in Tunisia. Other U.S. economic-development agencies should focus very specifically on the problem of underemployed youth.”

Anthony Dworkin of the European Council for Foreign Relations sets out a snapshot of Tunisia’s progress and recommendations for how the EU can support it in strengthening its nascent democracy in a ECFR briefing, “Tunisia’s Elections and the Consolidation of Democracy”. He writes: “Even if Tunisia’s example does not inspire any immediate followers in the region, the consolidation of a successful democracy in the country would be a powerful signal that reform and political pluralism are not doomed to fail in the Arab world. It is therefore in the EU’s interest to do everything it can to help ensure success in Tunisia. The country has already overcome a series of difficulties and crises, but in order to consolidate democracy it will need to take two further steps. In the short term, further instability and popular discontent must be avoided by creating a political balance after the elections that allows the government to tackle pressing economic and security problems. Beyond this, the larger challenge of systemic reform will ultimately determine whether Tunisians come to feel that democracy has delivered the opportunity, dignity, and social justice that the revolution demanded…The EU should consider Tunisia as a particularly strategic interest in the next few years and be prepared to invest significant resources and political effort in its development.”
ILDO Guide: Together Against Corruption and Economic and Financial Crime in Tunisia

The International Law Development Organisation has published a guide on combatting corruption and financial and economic crimes in Tunisia. This guide builds on its programme of assistance to the Tunisian government in reinforcing judicial capacity in prosecuting financial crimes, including the establishment of a specialized financial judicial circuit. The project was funded by the Italian Agency for Cooperation and Development.


The British Council held its third Hammamet Conference bringing together 100 civil society, media, business, government and intellectual figures to discuss leadership in the Maghreb region. The conference focused on educational reform, youth inclusion and dialogue and consensus-building in the region.

The Middle East Institute hosted a panel discussion on 20 November on the political transitions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, as part of its 68th Annual Conference on the Middle East.

William Lawrence, Professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University,argued that there are two prevailing narratives in this moment of transition: The first, that Tunisia has succeeded against all odds –warning that Tunisia’s relative success should not be taken for granted. Although there is no Tunisia “model” there is a Tunisia “example;” one in which secularists and Islamists negotiate together and buy into a mutually inclusive political discourse. The other important narrative, which runs counter to the first, is that of Tunisia’s severely crippled economy. The economy has not given any indication that things are getting better. On this point, Lawrence reminded the Washington community that Tunisia is the ninth largest recipient of aid in MENA when it should be at least third, if not second. There is also an undertone of a deteriorating security situation weaving through this second counter narrative. Tunisians feel cornered to the east and south by the security failures of their neighbors. They have hundreds of foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria. It is at this critical time, Lawrence said, that Tunisia must strive to channel disparate and marginalized views through peaceful politics rather than extremism and exclusion.

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