Tunisia in 'sprint' to arrange poll after president dies

Beji Caid Essebsi died on 25 July and the constitution stipulates that elections must be held 90 days after a head of state's death.

FILE: Late Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi. AFP

TUNIS - Rushing to register candidates and train poll workers, Tunisia's electoral commission has raced to organise presidential elections after the death of leader Beji Caid Essebsi, hoping to protect the country's nascent democracy.

The Independent Higher Authority for Elections (ISIE) snapped into action when Essebsi died on 25 July, facing immediate pressure from a constitutional deadline and parties seeking favourable dates.

The body, whose nine members are elected by parliament, brought the date of scheduled polls forward by two months, fixing the first round for 15 September.

The constitution stipulates that elections must be held 90 days after a head of state's death. The first round of voting will take place just seven weeks after the funeral.

In a mid-summer dash, ISIE stocked up on indelible ink and sorted through nearly 100 candidate applications, selecting a final list of 26 hopefuls.

"We're in a sprint to respect the rules," ISIE spokeswoman Hasna Ben Slimane told AFP.

"We have to train 55,000 people - inspectors and polling station staff," she said.

"ISIE has experience. It has already organised six elections, but it's still complicated."

The body has overseen a series of historic polls following the 2011 overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in an uprising which sparked revolts across the Arab world.

They include Tunisia's first free election in October 2011 and the first free presidential election in 2014 which brought Essebsi to power.

"ISIE's reaction after the death of Caid Essebsi is a sign of its maturity," said history professor Abdeltif Hannachi.


ISIE has registered some 1.5 million - mostly young - new voters this year, a success given that 65% of voters abstained in the first democratic municipal polls in 2018.

The body has pushed to tighten checks on social networks and campaign finances, Ben Slimane said.
It struggled with both in 2014.

Before campaigning kicked off on Monday, the commission sent "warnings" to political parties asking them to delete problematic sponsored Facebook pages, said ISIE chief Nabil Baffoun.

Tunisian electoral monitor Mourakiboun hailed ISIE for its "independence" but its head Mohamed Marzouk regrets that the body has "not detailed the methods of checking expenses and campaign finances".

Accusations of corruption have swirled in the lead up to the polls, culminating in the arrest of media magnate and presidential hopeful Nabil Karoui for alleged money laundering.

His detention fuelled suspicions of flawed justice, pushing ISIE to quickly assure that nothing, even prison, prevented Karoui from being a candidate.

The decision, Hannachi said, "proves the independence of ISIE, which did not yield to the pressure of those who asked it to remove Nabil Karoui from the race".

Observers have said the previous ISIE-run elections, despite their flaws, were transparent and independent.

Hannachi, who praised the commission's work, said ISIE's model could be "exported to other countries in transition, like Sudan and Algeria".