Beyond the ballot-box … Populism and polarisation

Blog piece by Ulrika Nilsson

On the 15thSeptember Tunisians took to the polls in their second free and fair Presidential election since the revolution in 2011. Just as earlier polls had indicated, the vote came out in favour of two populist but polar opposite candidates, both representing a rejection of the establishment and political stalemate. Nabil Karoui, the media mogul often cited as Tunisia’s Silvio Berlusconi, won 15.5% of the vote. Kaïs Saïed, a constitutional law professor nicknamed ‘Robocop’ for his monotone use of classical Arabic in speeches, won 19.5%.

Both candidates are entirely new to politics, but effective in appealing to people’s frustrations. Karoui is positioning himself as a champion of the poor and prior to announcing his candidacy publicised his charity work widely on his own TV channel.[1]He is currently in pre-trial detention under suspicion of tax evasion and money laundering, something he will receive immunity for should he win the second round of votes. Saïed on the other hand, has very conservative views on social issues and law and order, advocating for a reintroduction of the death penalty in certain cases.[2]He is also known to be strongly opposed to reforms that would allow women equal inheritance rights, and has referred to homosexuality as an illness encouraged by foreign actors.

Rejecting the once-trusted but ineffective establishment

The popularity of these candidates, and the abandonment of support for those from well-established parties, highlights Tunisians’ current anti-establishment sentiments. This comes from a frustration with the lack of economic opportunity and social development, the core of people’s demands in 2011, and this election result reflects their discontent with the lack of progress.

The political compromise in 2014 was important in that it kept the country on a democratic path and granted stability. This was lauded internationally, not least through the Nobel Peace Prize given to the National Quartet that mediated the agreement. But, the compromise has also contributed to decision-making inertia. It has been used as an excuse for not making decisions, and has delayed or stalled many processes required by the 2014 Constitution.

The stalling leading to a failure to establish the constitutional court is one missed opportunity that is extremely detrimental to Tunisia’s progress on the rule of law and democracy. Only one out of 12 judges has been appointed to the court, and it has been unable to act as a check on Tunisia’s executive. Several controversial laws, including one that offers blanket amnesty to corrupt officials from the Ben Ali regime, have been passed without the possibility to challenge their constitutionality. And when President Essebsi died in July 2019, the Court could not assume its mandate to oversee the peaceful transfer of power to the speaker of Parliament. Thankfully, this process was respected nonetheless.

Same Frustrations, Different Solutions

The past few years have seen recurring mass protests against austerity measures put in place to quality for a new IMF loan, and the chronic lack of economic opportunity. Tunisia’s GDP has decreased from TND 47.63bn in 2014 to TND 39.86bn in 2018.[3]Trends indicate a slight upswing in 2019 and 2020[4], but the consistent decrease since 2014 and austerity measures imposed have greatly impacted Tunisians.  Young people feel the brunt of this more than any other demographic group. Many are also university-educated and there is a mismatch between what skills they can supply and what employers are demanding. The overall unemployment rate stands at 15.2%, but the rate for youth (15-24yrs) stands at 34.4%. The unemployment rate for graduates of tertiary education is as high as 28.2%.[5]

Persistent corruption  and nepotism makes it hard for those without connections to find jobs. And along with the highly centralised bureaucracy it has contributed to more and more people finding work in the informal sector. The informal sector now accounts for about half of Tunisia’s GDP but leaves workers without social protection or job security.[6]

Though both appeal to the same frustrations, the two candidates have opposing views of the state. Karoui has vowed to create a strong, central state that will deliver on Tunisians’ demands for economic growth and improved public services. Whether there is a concrete plan through which election promises will be achieved remains to be seen, but what is clear is that his political narrative which places focus on the ‘neglected citizens’ is attractive to voters.

Saïed, on the other hand presents decentralisation as the solution to ending the era of corrupt political parties and to bringing control closer to the people. One of his main promises is to replace direct legislative elections with ones at the local and regional level. Another way of responding to the frustration and disappointment with the highly centralised and bureaucratic state system adopted since 2011. His plans also speak to the persistent regional inequality that has characterised Tunisia since before independence, with economic and political power held in greater Tunis and coastal areas, leaving the interior regions of the country largely neglected. Interestingly, exit polls have shown that those who voted for Saïed were predominantly well-educated and young first-time voters, whilst those who voted for Karoui were poor, rural voters with primary education, if any at all.[7]

Done compromising…

The second election round has been scheduled for 13thOctober, and other candidates and parties have started coming out in favour of one or the other. But even before that, the legislative elections will take place on the 6th. The stand-off between the two presidential candidates also brings up the secularist-Islamist divide that has characterised Tunisian politics since the last election. Karoui – an anti-islamist and former Nidaa Tounes member, and Saïed – a social conservative represent a return to the political poles that defined the playing field prior to the political compromise. As Tunisians tire of the era of compromise, they resort to these extremes. On Sunday, we will find out whether they do so even in electing their Parliament.

It’s anyone’s guess who Tunisia’s next democratically elected President will be, but even now it is clear that a vote for either candidate is a call for a transparent and effective state that can be held accountable to its people. A tough task for either candidate. And lot of work will be required to put ambitious election promises into practice, all the while respecting the 2014 Constitution and the democratic process.


[1] Project on Middle East Democracy (‘POMED’), A Guide to Tunisia’s 2019 Presidential Election (2019), p. 10

[2] Ibid. p. 13

[3] World Bank,

[4] OECD, Economic Outlook, Volume 2019 Issue 1, p. 2.

[5] Tunisian Bureau of Statistics,

[6] Yerkes, S. Carnegie Endowment, Tunisia’s revolutionary goals remain unfulfilled


About the author

Ulrika Nilsson is the MENA Programme Manager at ILAC.