Tunisia Divided by Presidential Race

Tunisia remains divided by a presidential race that will steer the country towards democracy. Voters will choose between two candidates, Beji Caid Essebsi and Moncef Marzouki, in a runoff election on Sunday.

The runoff will be the final step in the country’s transition to democracy. However, tensions are running high in the capital city of Tunis, where the election is taking place. Around 100,000 policemen and soldiers have been called in to secure the polls. Many Tunisians fear that a terrorist attack could upend this peaceful transition.

Their fears are not completely off base. A shotgun blast fired on the eve of the election near the city of Kairouan wounded a soldier. Islamic radicals, who have threatened the security forces in Tunis and called on citizens to boycott the election, are the primary suspects in the shooting.

Marzouki has been serving as the interim prime minister since the revolution that overthrew President Zine Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. He is being challenged by Essebsi, an experienced politician that has served under previous Tunisian leaders, including Ben Ali. In a sense, Marzouki represents a departure from traditional Tunisian government while Essebsi is a symbol of the country’s old regime. Their distinct visions of the future have polarized the Tunisian citizens, of which there are around 5.3 million registered voters.

Essebsi, who is more popular amongst the wealthier classes of the northern and coastal regions, was the favorite in the first round of voting that occurred last month, winning 39 percent of the vote. Marzouki, who represents many of the poorer segments of the population, took 33 percent of the vote.

Religion is a significant component of the presidential race, dividing Tunisia into two distinct groups, secularists and Islamists. Essebsi is more popular among secular voters. While moderate Islamists claim that they are not backing either candidate, they have, in past elections, voted in favor of the interim prime minister. Marzouki claims that he is a secularist and that he is only concerned with bringing democracy to the country.

Marzouki describes himself as a human rights activist. He was imprisoned and later forced into exile by the Ben Ali government. Marzouki warns voters that if elected, Essebsi will bring back the totalitarian government of previous regimes.

Essebsi, in an attempt to remain the favorite, claims that Marzouki has mismanaged the country since the overthrow of Ben Ali in 2011 and that he is responsible for allowing an increase in terrorist activity. He promises to return security and stability to Tunisia and points to his four decades of experience as a politician.

The primary reason that voters of Tunisia remain so clearly divided by the presidential race is that both candidates have focused on negative campaigning. Rather than emphasizing their own positive attributes, Marzouki and Essebsi have concentrated on pointing out each other’s flaws. Both candidates have, in a sense, attempted to scare Tunisians into voting. Marzouki’s supporters are afraid of a return to a totalitarian regime, while Essebsi’s supporters fear a continuation of the chaos that has ensued in the three years since Ben Ali was removed from power.

By Dac Collins

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Photo by European Parliament – Flickr License