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Tunisian president's death could bring political shifts in its wake

Beji Caid Essebsi standing at a lectern
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi. Photo: Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The death of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi on Thursday will complicate the country's upcoming elections and may spell the end of his increasingly fractious Nidaa Tounes political party.

The big picture: The 92-year-old leader was Tunisia's first democratically elected president. It could now fall to the interim president, 85-year-old Speaker of Parliament Mohammed Ennaceur, to finalize the Constitutional Court — a body whose absence has stunted the democratic transition as parliament has failed to agree on the court's number of members.

Where it stands: Tunisia was already scheduled to hold presidential elections on November 17, yet the ISIE — Tunisia's electoral body —announced it would move the elections up to September 15, to comply with a constitutional requirement that new elections be held within 90 days of the president’s death.

  • The ISIE has been plagued with logistical and political challenges in the past and may not be able to handle this curveball.
  • With less than 8 weeks remaining, the condensed electoral calendar leaves candidates far less time to prepare their campaigns.

What's happening: The interim president must decide what to do about a controversial electoral law, passed by parliament in June, that would both raise the electoral threshold from 3% to 5% and exclude some popular presidential candidates, including television magnate Nabil Karoui, from the race.

  • Essebsi had not signed the law before he died, leaving it in limbo. Should Ennaceur, a member of Essebsi’s party, sign the law, he would betray the deceased president’s wishes.

The impact: Essebi's death could lead to the unraveling of the Nidaa Tounes party, which in recent years has suffered from in-fighting and lacked a coherent vision.

  • Its traditional political rival, the Islamist party Ennahda, is likely to see gains. One member, Abdelfatah Mourou, was sworn in as speaker of the Assembly during the post-Essebsi transition, granting the party a prominent position of power ahead of the elections.
  • Prime Minister Youssef Chahed — who frequently sparred with Essebi and his son, the head of Nidaa Tounes — may stand to benefit most from the early elections. A 42-year-old with little political experience, he struggled to develop his own agenda as Essebsi impinged on his role. Chahed will have to prove that he and his new Tahya Tounes party can address the country’s economic challenges more successfully.

Sarah Yerkes is a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.