Campaign posters and banners for next week’s presidential elections have covered the walls of Tunisia’s cities and towns, papering over the flaking posters from the parliamentary elections just three weeks ago. The presidential campaign, featuring 25 competitors, kicked off in early November. If no candidate wins a majority on Nov. 23, there will be a runoff between the top two vote-getters on Dec. 28. The favorite to win is Beji Caid Essebsi, an 87-year-old veteran politician who served under Ben Ali and his predecessor Habib Bourguiba, and whose party won the most seats in parliament — 39 percent — in the October elections. After 3 1/2 years of a stormy transition marked by high unemployment and terrorist attacks, Tunisians voted for Essebsi’s party Nida Tunis (Tunisia’s Call) hoping to bring back stability and prosperity. Essebsi started his campaign in Bourguiba’s coastal home town of Monastir and evoked nostalgia for this towering figure of Tunisia’s history who won independence from France and created a modern state defined by a well-educated middle class — albeit with little room for dissent. The possibility of an old-regime politician and his party controlling both the presidency and parliament has raised some concern.
“There are many fears of the return to the one-party state, of course,” said Michael Ayari, Tunisia analyst at the International Crisis Group. “There is a fear of returning to centralization, a single ‘pater familias’ (head of the household) who will become an omnipresent figure.”
Despite his age, Essebsi has been campaigning vigorously all over the country to packed stadiums, and Saturday night was no exception in the Tunis neighborhood of El Menzah, where a giant screen was set up for the many supporters who couldn’t enter the thundering stadium. Essebsi told the cheering crowds that youth is a “state of mind” and that Tunisians will decide if he is fit enough to take the helm of the nation.