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02.08.2019 Tunisia

Tunisia's PM joins presidential race after Essebsi's death

By Christina Okello - RFI
Fethi Belaid/Pool via Reuters
LISTEN AUG 2, 2019

Tunisia's liberal Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has thrown his hat into the ring to become the country's next president following the death of Beji Caid Essebsi last week. Chahed joins a host of other candidates, whose first task will be to fix the economy.

The announcement of Chahed's candidacy Thursday took few people by surprise. The 46-year-old premier has made no secret about his intention to run for president.

Yet three years after taking control of Tunisia's government, some say Chahed no longer inspires.

"When Chahed was appointed prime minister, everyone had high hopes, because he was young and intelligent and had studied in both France and Tunisia," comments Hassen Kassar, a social sciences professor at the University of Tunis.

It was not long, however, for disappointment to set in.

"He has presided over a government that has been mismanaged for years, which has squandered public money, and it's a weakness that his political rivals are likely to exploit," Kassar told RFI.

Chahed may not be responsible for all of Tunisia's problems, but he is seen as an establishment figure, responsible for all of Tunis' woes.

Charismatic outsider
The crowded political arena does not help Chahed's chances of winning the presidency, reckons Kasser. At least ten candidates are running, including liberal former Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, and ex-interim President Moncef Marzouki.

Furthermore, as the late president Essebsi's health deteriorated, new figures emerged.

The most serious contender is businessman Nabil Karoui, who heads Nessma TV. He has never held a government post in his life, which is appealing to many voters. Polls show him in the lead in the campaign, ahead of the prime minister.

Karoui has also been able to drum up support through his philanthropy work. In 2017, he founded the Khalil Tounes charity, named after his eldest son who died in a car crash.

The charity has delivered medical care throughout the country and brought doctors to villages where none existed, all under the watchful gaze of the public, who have been given a front-seat view, thanks to coverage by Nessma.

"He has carved himself out as a 'Messiah of the masses'," says Kasser. "And for those in impoverished areas, his message is appealing."

"He is extremely charismatic," Monica Marks, a PhD scholar specialising in Tunisia, told RFI. "He would likely decimate Chahed at the ballot box if he is allowed to run."

Controversial law
Essebsi died before resolving a controversial electoral law that some critics say is designed specifically to end the bid of the top-polling candidate.

Parliament passed a bill in June that would essentially ban candidates who resort to political advertising or who distribute welfare to help the population.

"Essebsi was under huge pressure to sign it [the bill] in the days before his death, but he didn't," says Marks.

"It has created a kind of constitutional crisis in Tunisia that will have huge repercussions for the upcoming elections and the health of Tunisian democracy as a whole."

Essebsi, a veteran politician, who passed away on 25 July, is credited with steering Tunisia to democracy after the 2011 Arab Spring. Nearly ten years on, however, the country remains mired in a severe economic crisis that has fuelled social discontent.

Unfinished Revolution
"Today, there is democracy, freedom of expression, but unfortunately there is no foreseeable plan for economic growth, for economic wealth creation," reckons Moncef Cheikh Rouhou, an economics professor at the French business school HEC.

The problem, he argues, is self interest.
"There are politicians who are running right and left, trying to grab every seat they can, but what have they achieved? The beautiful democratic lesson of the revolution has been lost," he told RFI.

A coalition of three parties rules Tunisia, including the prime minister's secular Tahya Tounes party, but several cabinets have so far failed to resolve economic problems that include high inflation and unemployment.

"We are spending too much time discussing how we are going to spend the wealth of the country, and less and less wealth is created," says Rouhou. "At the end of the day, somebody has got to foot the bill."

That somebody may likely be the next president, who will be chosen when Tunisians vote on 15 September.