TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, 92, recently said he has no desire to run for a second term, opening up speculation about other possible candidates. Not everyone, however, accepts that as his final word on the subject.
“In all honesty, I don’t think I will run for a second term,” he said in the opening speech of the first electoral congress of his Nidaa Tounes party. He added, however, that "it is still too early to say" with certainty if he will run. Essebsi said he would announce his decision "in due time."
The congress was held April 6 in Monastir. Tunisia's presidential elections are slated for Nov. 17 and the post-revolution Tunisian Constitution guarantees Essebsi’s right to run for a second term. In the country's first presidential elections, held in November 2014 after the 2011 overthrow of then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Essebsi beat rival Moncef Marzouki, winning a five-year term with 55.7% of the votes.
During interviews with local and international media, Essebsi always avoids giving a conclusive answer about whether he will participate in the upcoming elections. On March 27, in an interview with Al-Arabiya TV, he reiterated his right to run for a second term.
However, Essebsi stressed in his speech this month that Tunisia needs change and the time has come to “open the door to youths.”
Tunisians expressed different positions on social media toward Essebsi’s most recent statement. Some lauded the move as a courageous and historical stance, while others described it as a political maneuver against his opponents.
Tunisian politicians and even Nidaa Tounes leaders were caught off guard by Essebsi’s statement.
Nidaa Tounes parliament member Tayeb al-Madani told Al-Monitor he was “surprised by Essebsi’s decision, especially as the leadership of his party is still insistent on his candidacy.”
He went on, “We respect the president's desire. … We see this as a positive message from the president to give way to competent youths to run in this race.”
Madani stressed, however, that his party has yet to consider other candidates. He pointed out that the door of candidacy remains open to all party leaders and even to independents that Essebsi might put forward.
During the April 6 electoral congress, Essebsi called on Nidaa Tounes leaders to lift the freeze on the partisan membership of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed. On Sept. 14, Chahed’s membership was frozen amid escalating party infighting and tense partisan rivalry between him and the president's son Hafez Essebsi, the head of Nidaa Tounes.
In statements the same day to Tunisian Shems FM private radio station, Hafez said he also was surprised by his father’s call. He noted, however, that even Chahed can run in the elections as a candidate for Nidaa Tounes.
According to an opinion poll published April 2 by Emrhod Consulting, Chahed was the favorite potential candidate among 14.6% of respondents, while Essebsi ranked fifth with only 0.5%.
Al-Monitor spoke to political analyst and former member of al-Irada party Tariq al-Kahlawi, who affirmed that Essebsi’s talk about not running for a second term is not a waiver of power. “Essebsi doesn't want to leave through the back door. He doesn't want to end his political career with a humiliating defeat to Chahed — who has yet to announce his candidacy — in the presidential elections if he decided to run again.”
Though Essebsi has voiced his desire not to run again, some political observers believe he is saving his candidacy card for a later hand.
Kahlawi added, “Essebsi has political savvy. He thoroughly studies his political steps while being fully aware of the rise of Chahed's popularity, as demonstrated by the opinion poll results. Add to this Essebsi’s old age and physical health.”
Explaining the current president’s call for unfreezing Chahed’s Nidaa Tounes membership, Kahlawi said, “Essebsi sought to confuse Chahed, who [in the meantime has] founded his own party, Tahya Tounes [Long Live Tunisia], which is gearing up to hold its first electoral congress April 28.”
In an April 9 press conference, Salim al-Azabi, a founding member of Tahya Tounes, confirmed that Chahed is the political leader of the party. “The discussion by Nidaa Tounes'’ electoral congress of unfreezing Chahed’s partisan membership is too little too late,” he said, ruling out Chahed’s return to that party.
In this context, Tahya Tounes member Ismail bin Mahmoud praised Essebsi’s position of not running and of paving the way for youths. He told Al-Monitor, “By calling for unfreezing Chahed’s Nidaa Tounes membership, the president has ended about a year of conflict and tension that prevailed between the two heads of the executive authority. Reconciliation would create a stable political climate in Tunisia.”
Like Azabi, Mahmoud said Chahed will not be returning to Nidaa Tounes and will be the candidate of Tahya Tounes, whether as head of the party or to run in future presidential elections if he so decides.