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Is Tunisia’s 92-year-old president mulling second term?

Nidaa Tounes recently announced its support for President Beiji Caid Essebsi to pursue a second term, a move that stirred controversy given his advanced age.

TUNIS – Nidaa Tounes leader Raouf Khammassi told Radio Diwan FM on Jan. 22 that his party backs 92-year-old Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi as its candidate in elections scheduled for December. Khammassi stressed that Essebsi is the movement’s only candidate, asserting, “There is no person capable of competing against him in the upcoming presidential elections. He has every chance to win.”

Essebsi won Tunisia's first post-revolution elections, held in December 2014, garnering 55.68% of the vote, while his opponent, Moncef Marzouki, received 44.32%. In a Sept. 24 interview with El Hiwar El Tounsi, Essebsi declined to indicate whether he planned to run for a second five-year term, stating, “It is a right guaranteed by the constitution, but we’ll talk about it when we get there.” He further remarked that age is not an obstacle for him, though it might be for his opponents.

Ramzi Khamis, a parliamentarian for Nidaa Tounes, told Al-Monitor that the party, which Essebsi founded in 2012, has asked him to run for re-election under its banner.

“We urged President Essebsi to run for a second term because not only Nidaa Tounes supporters, but a good number of Tunisians agree with his diligent efforts at achieving political and social stability in Tunisia over the past five years, thanks to the policy of understandings he adopted among parties and national organizations,” he said. Khamis further noted that there are no constitutional or health issues disqualifying an Essebsi candidacy.

Ennahda had paved the way for Essebsi to win in 2014 by dropping the age restriction for presidential candidates during discussions about the new constitution. The Constitution Drafting Committee had set the maximum age at 75.

Mohamed Bououd, a political analyst and Radio Tunis correspondent, remarked to Al-Monitor that Essebsi is not hiding his desire to run for re-election in light of the conflict between himself and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who was suspended from Nidaa Tounes in September and on Jan. 27 announced his establishment of a new party, Tahya Tunis (Long Live Tunisia), at a meeting of Nidaa Tounes defectors, former Afek Tounes leaders and members of the National Coalition bloc.

Speaking to Télévision Tunisienne last May, Chahed had accused Hafez Caid Essebsi, executive director of Nidaa Tounes, of destroying the party, and as the president's son, of trying to use the state as his own personal property by exploiting its institutions. Essebsi responded by telling Nessma TV that Chahed was responsible for the government's failure to achieve economic growth and social stability and demanded that he resign.

Bououd added, “If President Essebsi had actually decided to refrain from running, he would have explicitly said so in many interviews. However, he kept deliberately dodging this question in particular, to keep from showing his opponents his cards, especially Chahed and Ennahda.”

Huda Salim, a parliamentarian for the National Coalition bloc, told Tunis Afrique Presse on Jan. 19 that the members of her bloc and leaders from Chahed’s new party have officially decided to nominate Chahed to lead Tahya Tunis. She did not rule out the possibility of his running for president in December.

Ennahda leader Zubair al-Shahoudi sees the current president's future differently than most. He told Al-Monitor that he predicts Essebsi will not run for a second term, due to “his age and the conviction that he wants to gracefully leave office after serving his five-year mandate.” According to Shahoudi, it is Nidaa Tounes and, more important, Hafez Caid Essebsi who want Essebsi to run, banking on his popularity to bring in votes while also hoping to entice people who have left the party over internal disputes and power struggles to return. In this regard, Shahoudi believes, given Essebsi’s political weight and strength, an Essebsi candidacy would be nothing more than a propagandistic game plan.

Shahoudi said that Nidaa Tounes, which is preparing to hold a convention March 2-3, is trying to reunite its leadership by electing a new party president, secretary-general and regional coordinators after a series of defections from the party and its parliamentary bloc.

The Nidaa Tounes bloc fell from being the second-largest group in parliament to the third largest, at 41 seats, after the resignation of five parliamentarians from the bloc on Jan. 23. The National Coalition bloc is now the second largest group, with 44 seats, while Ennahda remains in the majority with 68 of the 217 seats total.

Despite neither Essebsi or Chahed having officially announced whether they will run in the December election, it appears to many observers that the electoral battle between them has already begun.

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