On December 17, 2010, a fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in front of a government office after he refused to pay a bribe to an inspector and lost his fruit cart. Days later, Tunisians across the country gathered in the streets to protest widespread corruption, poor living conditions, and the ineffective government of Tunisian President Ben Ali. The protests culminated in the ousting of Ali and the formation of a new democratic government, according to BBC News. The success of democracy in Tunisia inspired others across the Arab world to rise up against their longtime rulers and sparked what is now called the Arab Spring.
Today, Tunisia is at a crossroads. The country’s first democratically elected leader, Beji Caid Essebsi, who has ruled since 2014, died in office in July at age 92. The country is slated to hold early presidential elections on September 15 to fill the void Essebsi’s passing leaves. The Washington Post reports Tunisia’s electoral commission will officially allow 26 candidates to run, including former prime ministers, the country’s defense minister, and a jailed media tycoon named Nabil Karoui, who many widely consider to be the election frontrunner. The atmosphere surrounding the election is contentious, as Karoui’s arrest for money laundering and tax evasion charges casts doubt on the integrity of the government. Many claim the arrest to be politically motivated, as his television station was frequently critical of the government. Leader of the governing Ennahda party Rached Ghannouchi commented on the arrest, saying “We are not happy about this arrest or the disruption of the activities of any party or political leader,” reports the Associated Press.
The September presidential elections are a key step in maintaining Tunisia’s fledgling democracy. While Essebsi allowed the revolution’s democratic dreams to thrive, the public still worries that that other interests will upend Tunisia’s political transition. The presidential election, which was supposed to take place after parliamentary elections, will now take place beforehand due to a constitutional clause that calls for elections within 90 days of the president’s death. This move stokes fears that whoever wins the presidency will restrict the power of parliament or bar certain parties from running.
The early election date also makes it hard to predict what will take power in parliament. According to the Washington Post, the Ennahda party, which controls the largest share of seats in Parliament, would likely face fierce opposition from other parties if it won the presidency and could cause other parties to rail against it. Alternatively, the Carnegie Foundation says that the party that wins the election could receive a boost in the polls and make it harder for other parties to compete.
Whoever wins the presidency in Tunisia will have to contend with a number of high-tension issues inherited from Essebsi and even the Ali regime. The economy under Essebsi remained stagnant, and many of the issues that Tunisia faced before Ali’s ousting like corruption and sagging economic growth remain. According to the Economist, Tunisians are wary of party politics in a fractured political landscape split between secular and Islamist interests. Most, especially the youth, want change. It will not be an easy job, but whoever wins the election in September faces the immense challenge of keeping the flame of democracy alive while giving the average Tunisian a reason to trust in the system.