On September 15, Tunisians voted in the country’s second democratic presidential election. Under a joint International Election Observation Mission, I traveled to the interior regions of Kasserine and Gafsa to witness this historic event. As an American, it was awe-inspiring to see how seriously Tunisians took the electoral process, having only won the right to vote less than nine years ago.

The election was remarkable for two reasons: Tunisia remains the sole country in the region to have ever held a democratic election, and the top presidential candidates headed for a runoff are far outside the political establishment. The rise of these candidates—who some Tunisians have nicknamed Robocop (the lawyer, Kais Said) and Don Corleone (the powerful media magnate, Nabil Karoui)—reveals an unambiguous dissatisfaction with the status quo. Yet despite voters’ frustration and a rather unorthodox election process, the election was carried out without any major disruptions.

Sarah Yerkes
Sarah Yerkes is a fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, where her research focuses on Tunisia’s political, economic, and security developments as well as state-society relations in the Middle East and North Africa.
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A Short Campaign Season

Following former president Beji Caid Essebsi’s death on July 25, the presidential elections were moved up from November 17 to September 15. Because this entailed flipping the order of the presidential and parliamentary elections and putting them on very tight timelines, presidential candidates were given less than two weeks (from September 2 to 13) to campaign.

When I arrived in Tunis, four days before the election, billboards lined the highways. The streets of Tunis were alive with small-scale campaign activities, ranging from band performances to men riding bicycles while carrying billboards. Tunisia had just held its first-ever presidential debates on live national television, with around 3 million Tunisians tuning in.

A billboard with candidate number nine, Moncef Marzouki, outside the Tunis airport.

However, once off the Tunisian highways and into Tunisia’s interior regions, the frenzy of activity dwindled. In downtown Gafsa, I only saw one large billboard for Karoui’s party. A primary way for voters, especially in poorer areas, to learn about candidates is at the polling centers. A checkerboard of numbers marks the walls, designating spots for each candidate to attach their posters and highlight their platforms. But even at these centers, it appeared that some candidates didn’t bother. In the more remote areas, some walls were virtually empty.

A wall at a polling station, showing that many candidates left their spaces empty.

It was also interesting, and somewhat counterintuitive, that the day before and day of voting were ruled days of campaign silence. Campaigns were required to remove all their posters and billboards. But ballots only contain the candidate’s name and a photograph—not even a party identification—so the posters could have helped to educate less-informed voters. Seeing the blank billboards and ripped posters also lent an eerie solemnity to the day.

An empty billboard along the A1 highway heading out of Tunis.

The Voter’s Experience

Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) made a big push to register new voters, bringing the total number to more than 7 million out of around 8.9 million eligible voters. But to vote, Tunisians had to present a national identity card or passport. And many, particularly those in poorer areas and who are illiterate, do not have an ID card. Furthermore, I saw numerous voters, mostly older Tunisians, turned away because they were at the incorrect polling station. Voters could look up their stations on the wall of the polling center registry or by using an SMS system, but those who were illiterate or did not have mobile phones often had to rely on polling workers to find their station. In Kasserine, one polling official would step outside each time he had to help a voter, rather than violate the rule of using his phone inside the station.

Voters try to find their names on the polling center registry.

Other groups of Tunisians were also disenfranchised because of the lack of absentee ballots. Prisoners are legally allowed to vote, but there are no polling stations inside the prisons. And poll workers and citizen observers, who are not assigned to their home polling station (or one nearby), have no way of voting. Additionally, electoral law prohibits military and security personnel from voting in national elections and from participating in any political activity.

In all, only 3.5 million turned out to vote—just 39 percent of eligible voters. In addition to logistical issues and legal stipulations, there appeared to be gender and age gaps in the voting patterns. At my polling stations, I saw fewer women than men voting and almost no youth. The head of a civil society organization in Gafsa said that women and youth are not interested in voting—that a woman would only vote “when her husband works for a political party or her friend is a candidate.” She mentioned one woman who refused to vote because neither of her two daughters, who have master’s degrees, are able to find work. And some older Tunisians have not yet become accustomed to open and transparent institutions, despite public trust in the ISIE being generally quite high. One voter told me that he did not trust the pen used in the polling station, believing his vote was going to be changed after he wrote it.

Nevertheless, many voters took pride in participating in a democratic process, and in some areas, trust in the candidate led to increased voter turnout. In Gafsa, Safi Said, a journalist and writer who also ran in 2014, performed well because he is from the area and is “trusted,” according to a local civil society activist. Although he only came in sixth overall, in that polling station, the turnout was 76 percent, with Safi Said receiving around half of the votes.

Member of Parliament from Kasserine, Mohamed Rachdi Bougerra, and his wife display their inked fingers (a protection against fraud) after voting in Sbeitla.

Most voters I spoke to also found the election workers extremely helpful. All the poll workers and ISIE staff I saw were professional, well-trained, and took their jobs very seriously.

The military also played a key role in protecting the integrity of Tunisia’s elections. Voting takes place in a polling station (a classroom), which is located inside a polling center (a school). There are 4,567 polling centers and 13,446 polling stations throughout the country. While security forces are not allowed inside polling stations, soldiers guard the polling centers to prevent violence and keep the peace. When I arrived at a polling station in Sbeitla, Kasserine, the day before the election, I saw the military coming to drop off the ballots. This included a procession of a tank, a school bus full of soldiers, and a truck containing the ballot boxes. In high security areas such as Kasserine, soldiers not only secure the ballots in a locked room but also sleep overnight at the polling center to guard the ballots.

At the end of the day, polling station officials manually record the count on the official minutes. Candidate representatives who observe the elections, and must remain in one polling station for the entire period, sign the minutes and post them on the polling station door. The military then transports the ballots to the regional elections center for tabulation.

A polling official closes up the voting box for transport to the regional polling center. A representative from Karoui’s campaign (right) looks on.

The Unexpected Results

Given voters’ frustration with the lack of progress in the country, it was not wholly surprising that experienced candidates performed poorly. But Kais Said was relatively unknown prior to the campaign, so the election results took many by surprise. To say that he and Nabil Karoui are anti-establishment might be an understatement.

Some Tunisians refer to the contest between Said and Karoui as Robocop versus Don Corleone—the former a stoic man who speaks classical Arabic and the latter a charismatic philanthropist with shady business ties. But during the campaign, both candidates tried to sell themselves as champions of the poor, albeit in different ways. Karoui’s billboards were brightly colored and featured children or elderly Tunisians, highlighting his charitable work.  

Karoui put the economy front and center. But he faces an uphill battle, since he was arrested on money laundering and tax evasion charges this summer. Not only is he unable to speak directly to the Tunisian public, but his assets have been frozen, making funding the campaign difficult. Nevertheless, he is well-known for his charitable work and for running a private television station, Nessma TV. It is clear that the timing of Karoui’s arrest was politically motivated, but the Tunisian courts have repeatedly ruled against releasing him, postponing his latest hearing to October 2.

Said is a constitutional lawyer and law professor with no political background and no political party. For many, particularly Tunisian youth, Said represents justice and the rule of law, but he is also a staunch conservative. In the days since the election, Said has attracted the endorsement of several former candidates, including those on the left and the Islamists. He must decide if he is willing to participate in an election that is clearly violating the law that guarantees candidates equal access to campaigning.

The decision to keep Karoui in jail has serious consequences for his electability and the entire presidential election process. This has left a stain on what has been otherwise a well-organized, professional electoral process and further contributes to a lack of public trust in Tunisia’s young democratic institutions.

Regardless of who ultimately wins, Tunisia will likely find itself with a president from a different political party than its prime minister, which will make addressing the country’s economic challenges, especially regional inequality, difficult.

Tunisia’s Coastal-Interior Divide

Driving away from the capital, the coastal-interior divide is stark. And the election results reflect this, with voter turnout in the Tunis 2 district (59 percent) nearly twice that of Kasserine (33 percent). Tunisia has 2,000 miles of Mediterranean coastline, boasts numerous Roman ruins, and is a top global exporter of phosphates. But former president Ben Ali’s legacy—including a bloated bureaucracy and rampant corruption, a nonconvertible currency, and intentional marginalization of the country’s interior and south—has made it hard for the Tunisian economy to recover. Although unemployment is rampant nationwide, those in the wealthy coastal areas around Tunis and the resort town of Sousse are doing much better than those in the south.

Tunisians relax in the wealthy Tunis suburb of Sidi Bou Said, overlooking the Mediterranean.

Kasserine and Gafsa, where I observed the elections, are traditionally marginalized interior regions. Decades of continual neglect has left Kasserine’s citizens angry with their leaders in Tunis and helped fuel recruitment for a jihadist insurgency taking place on the western edge of the country. During a campaign event, Kasserine residents became enraged with Prime Minister Youssef Chahed over his government’s failure to address their needs.

Looming over Kasserine is Mount Chaambi, home to an ongoing jihadist insurgency.

This is despite untapped potential, including in Sbeitla, a town with a large archaeological site full of still intact Roman ruins. Although an obvious source of tourism, few visit Sbeitla, as the town has poor infrastructure, ripped-up roads, and miles of trash strewn across the highway.

The Roman ruins in downtown Sbeitla

Gafsa is known as one of the protest hubs of the country, as foreign companies who own its phosphate mines have failed to share their wealth with those in the region. In 2008, Gafsa residents led a large uprising against Ben Ali, which many believe paved the way for the Arab Spring.

Choosing the Best of the Worst

Tunisia’s second-ever democratic presidential election reflects the paradox many Tunisians now face: institutional success with little impact on people’s daily lives. The country’s democratic institutions now operate with high levels of professionalism and efficiency, but the public were clearly skeptical that those at the helm could deliver real change, as many stayed home or turned toward candidates squarely outside of the political system. But, consequently, according to the head of a civil society organization in Gafsa, the runoff vote will now involve picking the “best of the worst.”

This essay includes the author’s personal experience and analysis and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace or the International Election Observation Mission.