Opinion | Tunisian Elections: Between The Devil and Deep Blue Sea

By Nourjahen Jemaa Gara-Ali, Tunisia

On the International Day of Democracy, September 15th, Tunisia had its Presidential Elections. Voters went to their polling locations to give their voices to the person they trust most. However, voter turnout reached only 45,02% despite 1 million people registering to vote in the months leading to the elections, according to the Independent High Authority of Elections. 

To many people’s dismay and unexpectedly, two candidates led the votes and moved to the second round which will take place next month. The first one is Kais Saied, a law professor who has no background in the political establishment. The second one is Nabil Karoui, a Berlusconi-like businessman and Nessma TV Channel owner, who is currently under arrest for tax evasion. 

On the eve of the elections, I decided to pull an all-nighter. I went through countless websites researching candidates, reading and watching interviews, and also going through people’s arguments on social media pages. I had a very clear expectation when going in to vote at 8:30 a.m. When I went inside my polling location, I saw a lot of young people with their parents and their grandparents. I was happy and proud. I voted, which did not even take 3 minutes and went home to finally sleep. 

I woke up again and checked to see if we have any predictive results. I saw the two candidates leading and frankly, did not even pay attention to it. Like everybody else, I thought these posts were trying to influence people to vote for one or the other. What I paid attention to was the very low turnout. In my city, Nabeul, 3 hours before the end of the elections, the voter turnout was only 13,8%. It was catastrophic. Luckily, that changed to almost 54% by 6 p.m.

These elections were different from previous ones. We had a low turnout and more candidates. We had the first-ever presidential debates in the Arab World, which were organized over 3 nights and broadcasted on national television. We had a lot of awareness campaigns. We had a lot of initiatives launched to help people decide, like the website Chnowabarnamjek.tn, a website where people can compare candidates and take a quiz with a variety of questions to see whose views align most with theirs. We had constant reporting. All of these little things could be a reason to understand the turnout rate: People were tired by September 15th. People did not want to hear more about the elections. They wanted to be over with it. 

The shocking results could be attributed to a lot of factors. To understand them, we have to understand the background of Saied and Karoui first. To start with, Saied had the quietest campaign spending less than all of the other candidates as he held his meetings in cafés and cheap centres. Karoui, on the other hand, possibly spent the most. After the death of his son, Khalil Karoui, Karoui started an association ‘Khalil Tounes’ (The Friend of Tunisia) that later became a political party. He spent hundreds of thousands of dinars helping poor people and thus him being nicknamed ‘ma9rouna’ (macaroni or pasta). 

In addition, they appeal to people from two main backgrounds: the poor and illiterate and the intellectual and educated. Those who voted for Karoui saw in him a man with empathy and family values and for Saied, it was his academic background, law expertise, and language. 

Finally, they both stand against what the average Tunisian stands against: equality and LGBTQA+. This is a big one. We are becoming more and more obsessed with personal freedoms and these two points are being constantly discussed. As we face our biggest identity crisis yet, we are trying to figure out how far we can stretch ourselves and challenge our deep-rooted homophobia and sexism. 

Many people reading this might say this is a simplistic view and not a deep analysis. However, we have to understand that at the end of the day, this can be summarized in one point: the anti-establishment movement and trend. Throughout the world, people are rejecting the Establishment more and more. We are trusting governments less and opting to vote for people with little to no expertise in politics so we do not vote for The Man. In fact, we are challenging The Man as we get closer to desperation following what is happening around us, outside of our borders. 

I was very proud of everything we did leading up to the Elections. Today, I am disappointed. I am disappointed we had a low turnout that is not representative of my people and it cannot show in any way what we really want. I am disappointed youth did not vote as much as we should have. Now more than ever, we have a lot of work to do. We have more political education to work on. Our civil society needs to start moving now before it is too late. We have to remain the hope of the MENA region regardless of yesterday’s results.

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