Sunday, November 23, 2014

Tunisian Election: A Look at the Key Candidates
Officials of the Nidaa Tounes Party of Tunisia.
Karem Yehia in Tunisia, Saturday 22 Nov 2014
Ahram Online

Regardless of who wins Tunisia's presidential election on Sunday, Tunisians agree that the upcoming polls will be a landmark in the country’s political history.

Parliamentary elections took place last month, but this week’s election has a bigger profile, with huge and costly banners for the main candidates on display throughout the capital.

Although there are twenty-two candidates standing on Sunday, there were five candidates with particularly strong campaigns.

The candidates with the strongest and most visible campaigns are Beji Caid Essebsi, head of the Nidaa party, which won 38 percent of the seats in the recent parliamentary elections; leftist politician Hamma Hammami of the Popular Front party; the Free National Union's Saleem Riahi, a businessman and head of Club Africain football club; independent candidate Mohamed Ferekha, also a businessman; and interim president Moncef Marzouki.

Marzouki’s campaign is backed by the Ennahda party despite their earlier vow not to support a presidential candidate. His campaign appears to be the most active on the ground.

Marzouki's Congress for the Republic Party was a member of the former Ennhada-led coalition with the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties Party (Ettakatol). The coalition took office following the first elections in Tunisia after the ouster of Zine Al-Abedine Ben Ali. Members of Marzouki's campaigns could be seen distributing pamphlets of his pictures and platform on people walking in the streets, attempting to attract their attention and support.

Hassan Fatahli, a Tunisian political analyst, told Ahram Online that Marzouki, 69, has intensified his electoral and popular conferences at a pace greater than that of the 88-year-old Essebsi. In fact, several political analysts told Ahram Online that Essebsi and Marzouki have put on the most expansive presidential campaigns, with Hammami coming third with a relatively weaker performance.

Many commentators believe that leftist Hammami may receive more votes than Marzouki and enter the run-off round with Essebsi, as he has showed the "most serious" efforts to break the state of polarisation between the Nidaa leader and the Ennahda-backed candidate.

Hammami is also challenging Marzouki for the title of the “revolution's candidate.” For Essebsi, Hammami is a threat to him in terms of being the candidate defending the civility of the state against the Islamist project sponsored by Ennahda after the revolution.

Hammami, a veteran communist politician who became known during the period of Ben Ali's regime, has changed his look. He started wearing elegant clothes, having a hairstyle for himself, and counting on a team of professional campaigners.

According to media statistics, television interviews with the candidates usually attract a high number of local viewers.

Hammami’s team, following American techniques of electoral campaigning, is apparently capable of organising a well-structured campaign and addressing the masses on all levels. He started his campaign in the poor central Gafsa governorate and vowed to reduce the president's salary.

But, unlike his usual rhetoric, Hammami has stopped calling for dropping Tunisia's foreign debts. At the same time, the presidential candidate has endeavoured to counter attempts to question his piety.

Hammami visited Islamic shrines and promised to maintain Tunisia's Islamic identity, asserting that he himself is a Muslim. Hammami's Popular Front has had veiled women running on its electoral lists since the 2011 constituent assembly elections. And Hammmami’s campaign efforts seem to be paying off; his ability to mobilise large numbers of people during his electoral conferences has seen him emerge as a strong rival to Essebsi and Marzouki.

The polarisation between Essebsi and Marzouki has been a cause of controversy during this election. Ziad Krieshan, the editor in chief of the most influential and respected Tunisian newspaper, Al Maghreb, wrote an article on Wednesday entitled "Welcome polarisation." Krieshan argues that polarisation is a healthy sign in democracies as it means the rotation of power between two political forces or two parties.

Others have objected to the domination of the two candidates, including former central bank governor Mustafa Kamal Al-Nably, a candidate who withdrew from the race citing polarization and complaints of corruption.

The polarisation has also led to errors by the Marzouki and Essebsi campaigns.

When Marzouki for the first time referred to his rivals and the former regime as a "tyrannical", a flurry of condemnation followed. His rivals described his rhetoric as that of extremists and terrorists. Adding to the above, his appearance side by side with Salafists at his electoral conferences was frowned upon by many.

Furthermore, the statement issued on social networking sites by two leaders of the Ruabit Hemayet Al-Thawra (“Links to Protect the Revolution”) threatens that "bloodshed" will happen if Essebsi wins the elections. Marzouki's opponents perceived the statement as expressing support for him. The group was dissolved by a court verdict for involvement in violence.

Marzouki, who warns the Tunisian people in his speeches against the return of the old regime and the predominance of Nidaa Tunis in state institutions, focused in his presidential rally on campaigning in inland areas marginalized under the rule of Habib Bourguiba, the first president of Tunisia, and Ben Ali.

His rivals also charge him of damaging the image of the head of state by wearing informal and inappropriate attire.

He has worn the traditional Albornus costume, a symbol of belonging to the people in the centre, south and the far north-west of Tunisia. Marzouki is originally from Gebeli in the south.

Unlike Marzouki, Essebsi started his campaign at the coast, in front of the cemetery of Habib Bourguiba in the city of Monastir.

Essebsi’s rhetoric, style and even his sunglasses seemed designed to give an image of the great warrior.

Political analyst Kamal Al-Charna told Ahram Online that Essebsi, who uses the rhetoric of return of the state and the priority of security and counter-terrorism, aims to push his main rival Marzouki to pay for the mistakes of the former troika government.

After Essebsi ended his campaign in Sfax, the second largest city and the economic capital of the country. In Sfax, the electorate is split between Nidaa Tunis and Ennahda, he had to face the rumours of illness because of his age and his absence from meetings and conferences. In response Essebsi said a few days ago that he was ready to take off his clothes, to prove his physical capacity to take on the burdens of the job.

Alongside speculation about his age, Essebsi also has to face criticism for his meeting with religious scholars from Al-Zaytuna Mosque. Rivals condemned the meeting as exploitation of religion, and used it to claim he lacked commitment to the idea of a non-religious state.

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