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Tunisia decides: Voters head to polls in test on democracy

Tunisia has been praised as a rare success story for democratic transition after the Arab Spring regional uprisings

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Tunisia decides: Voters head to polls in test on democracy
Tunisians walk in front of posters of presidential candidates in the capital Tunis, on September 7, 2019. (Photo by FETHI BELAID / AFP)

Tunisia will hold on Sunday its second free presidential election by universal suffrage since the 2011 uprising that toppled an autocratic regime, with growing uncertainty over who will reach the next round.

Twenty-six candidates are in the race, including the incumbent prime minister and a media magnate who was arrested just weeks before the polls, as well as a presidential hopeful put forth by an Islamist-inspired party.

Seven million voters are expected to head to the ballot box after a campaign that largely focussed on social and economic challenges that have plagued the country’s fledgeling democracy.

“There are favourites and everything is possible, but even God cannot predict the results of the first round, let alone what will happen next,” columnist Ziyed Krichen said.

Political analyst Hatem Mrad agreed. “This election is really one of uncertainties,” he said.

Tunisia has been praised as a rare success story for democratic transition after the Arab Spring regional uprisings sparked by its 2011 revolution.

Three years later, it held its first post-revolution election, during which the political fault lines were clear, said Mrad, with Islamists squaring off against modernists.

But this time around, the differences are huge, with a plethora of candidates — Islamists, secularists, populists and partisans of the toppled regime — political programmes and issues, he added.

Preliminary results are expected to be announced by the electoral commission on September 17, but the date of the second round, which will decide the presidency, is not yet known.

Heavyweights –

Heavyweight candidates include Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and his nemesis Nabil Karoui, the media magnate arrested on charges of money laundering just three weeks before the election.

Tunisia decides: Voters head to polls in test on democracy
Prime Minister of Tunisia, Youssef Chahed speaks during a meeting ahead of the upcoming presidential elections, in Tunis, Tunisia on September 02, 2019. Yassine Gaidi / Anadolu Agency

Karoui’s supporters accuse Chahed of orchestrating his arrest, a charge denied by the ambitious prime minister who became the country’s youngest-ever head of government in 2016 at age 40.

A controversial businessman, Karoui has built his popularity by using his own Nessma television channel to launch charity campaigns, handing out food aid to some of the country’s poorest.

On Wednesday, the jailed candidate started a hunger strike, according to a member of his defence team, Ridha Belhaj.

Studies suggest that his arrest boosted his popularity, and observers say that if Karoui makes it to the second round of voting, it will be hard for authorities to justify keeping him behind bars without a trial. 

Tunisia decides: Voters head to polls in test on democracy
Nabil Karaoui, founder of Nessma TV, poses in his studio in Tunis. – The Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA), created in 2012 to reform the audiovisual landscape, fails to impose its decisions on media outlets with political support. With the elections approaching, however, measures were taken against Nessma TV, one of the country’s major private broadcasters, which was accused of “political advertising” for its founder Nabil Karoui. (Photo by Fethi Belaid / AFP)

Also in the race is lawyer Abdelfattah Mourou, 71, who was selected to run by the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party, and Mohammed Abbou, who was imprisoned under the ousted regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Candidates also include former defence minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, a technocrat who said he would “restart the social ladder” and make public services accessible to all Tunisians, if elected.

Two women are also eyeing the presidency, including Abir Moussi, a staunch anti-Islamist lawyer and champion of Ben Ali’s regime.

Tunisia decides: Voters head to polls in test on democracy
Ennahdha Party’s Candidate for the presidential election in Tunisia Abdelfattah Mourou (C) holds a press conference regarding his election pledges ahead of the Tunisia’s presidential election which is slated for September 15, in Tunis, Tunisia on September 9, 2019. Yassine Gaidi / Anadolu Agency

Social challenges – 

The presidential campaign wraps up on Friday, but none of the candidates appears to have stood out despite squaring off in multiple debates that were broadcast on radio and television.

Around two to three million Tunisians are believed to have tuned in to three major debates, during which candidates were asked to respond to questions drawn randomly.

The economic and social hardships that undermine Tunisia’s transition to democracy took centre stage during the campaign.

The country, hit by terrorist attacks against its key tourism sector and security forces, has struggled to combat unemployment and bring down inflation.

Unemployment in Tunisia is at 15 per cent, while the cost of living has increased by more than 30 per cent since 2016.

The election was brought forward from November after the death in July of Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia’s first president democratically elected in nationwide polls in 2014.

It will be followed by legislative elections, due to take place on October 6.

Some of the 26 hopefuls have called for the president’s powers to be beefed up in Tunisia, which has a parliamentary system.

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East Africa News

Landslide kills 22 in southern Ethiopia

Officials say the landslide in the district of Konta occurred Sunday following 10 hours of heavy rains

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Landslide kills 22 in southern Ethiopia
(File photo)

Rescue workers on Tuesday used excavators to dig out bodies after a landslide in southern Ethiopia washed away homes and killed more than 20 people, a local official said. 

The landslide in the district of Konta occurred Sunday following 10 hours of heavy rains, said the official, Takele Tesfu.

“There are 22 people dead and we have only been able to dig up 17 using manpower and machine power,” Takele told reporters.

“So far, we cannot get the others, so tomorrow we will continue to dig.”  

He said the victims included nine women and six children.

While the district — located in Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region — sees landslides with some regularity, Takele said this was the deadliest he could remember. 

“The area where this occurred is very mountainous, and this means the landslide was very dangerous,” he said. 

Ethiopia is nearing the end of its rainy season, but security forces are nonetheless relocating some families for fear that more rain in the coming days could lead to similar disasters, Takele said.

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Central Africa News

Doctors in DR Congo to deploy second Ebola vaccine in November

It will arrive in the eastern city of Goma, in North Kivu province, on October 18 and be used from the beginning of next month

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Doctors in DR Congo to deploy second Ebola vaccine in November

Doctors will use a second Ebola vaccine from November in three eastern provinces in the Democratic Republic of Congo to fight the deadly virus, medical officials said Sunday.

“It’s time to use the new Ad26-ZEBOV-GP vaccine, manufactured by Johnson & Johnson’s Belgian subsidiary,” said Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe, who leads the national anti-Ebola operation in the DRC. 

It will arrive in the eastern city of Goma, in North Kivu province, on October 18 and be used from the beginning of next month, he added.

READ: Uganda begins trial of “MVA-BN” Ebola vaccine

DRC’s latest Ebola epidemic, which began in August 2018, has killed 2,144 people, making it the second deadliest outbreak of the virus, after the West Africa pandemic of 2014-2016.

Muyembe said the communes of Majingo and Kahembe had been selected to receive the vaccine as they were considered the epicentres of the epidemic.

“We will extend this vaccination to our small traders who often go to Rwanda to protect our neighbours,” he added.

“If it works well, we will expand vaccination in South Kivu and Ituri.”

DR Congo’s eastern provinces of Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu sit on the borders with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

The Belgian laboratory will send a batch of 200,000 doses to neighbouring Rwanda and 500,000 doses in the DRC, Muyembe said.

READ: Kenya becomes 3rd country to adopt world’s first malaria vaccine, RTS,S

More than 237,000 people living in active Ebola transmission zones have received a vaccination produced by the pharma company Merck Sharpe and Dohme since August 8, 2018. 

The J&J vaccine had been rejected by DRC’s former health minister Oly Ilunga, who cited the risks of introducing a new product in communities where mistrust of Ebola responders is already high.

But Ilunga’s resignation in July appears to have paved the way for approval of the second vaccine. He currently faces charges that he embezzled funds intended for the fight against Ebola.

READ: Doctors Without Borders accuses WHO of rationing Ebola vaccine in DR Congo

In his letter of resignation, Ilunga said “actors who have demonstrated a lack of ethics” want to introduce a second vaccine, but did not elaborate. 

Muyembe, who took over the Ebola fight in the DRC in July, said “The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has the most science-based data.” 

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East Africa News

Mozambique votes in tense election after violent campaign

Mozambique began voting in a general election on Tuesday that some fear could test the country’s fragile peace, after a heated campaign marred by violence and allegations of electoral fraud.

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Mozambique began voting in a general election on Tuesday that some fear could test the country’s fragile peace, after a heated campaign marred by violence and allegations of electoral fraud.

The Frelimo party, which has ruled the impoverished southern African nation since independence from Portugal in 1975, is widely expected to again beat its arch-rival Renamo, a former rebel group turned main opposition party.

President Filipe Nyusi, who cast his ballot as polls opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT), called on voters to show “the world we stand for democracy and tolerance”.

“Mozambique has chosen to move forward peacefully,” he said, adding that more than more than 4,000 observers had been deployed in the most-watched election in the country’s history.

“Let’s continue this process in a serene way. Peace means that everything must be done according to the rules.”

Nyusi, 60, is forecast to win a second five-year term despite his popularity taking a hit from chronic unrest and a financial crisis linked to alleged state corruption.

While the election is expected to see regional wins for Renamo, few think Frelimo will be unseated from government after 44 years at the helm.

“Frelimo is a machine,” said Castro Davis, a 42-year-old public servant in the capital Maputo, predicting a “straight-forward victory.” 

Elena Jorge, 50, told AFP she wants Renamo to win “but people know that these elections will not be free, fair or transparent — but we have hope.”

Around 13 million of Mozambique’s 30 million citizens are registered to vote at more than 20,000 polling booths, which closes at 6:00 pm (1600 GMT).

Renamo is predicted to take control of three to five of Mozambique’s 10 provinces for the first time following a change of law allowing voters to elect provincial governors.

“This election will be a test for democracy,” said Ericino de Salema of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa.

“For the first time, the political geography of the country may change substantially, it may even lead to confrontation.”

Renamo’s candidate Ossufo Momade, 58, heads a party of former anti-communist rebels who fought a brutal civil war with Frelimo from 1975-1992, devastating the economy and leaving almost one million people dead. 

Renamo picked up arms again in 2013 to 2016, but tension continued until Nyusi and Momade signed a peace deal in August. 

But an armed breakaway faction of Renamo has rejected Momade’s candidacy and threatened to attack campaign events, raising fears the presidential, parliamentary and provincial polls could be marred by bloodshed.

The six-week campaign was one of the most violent in the country’s turbulent history, with candidates threatened, election material destroyed, and deadly clashes breaking out between supporters.

The opposition has already accused Frelimo of tampering with the vote.

Enrolment has more than doubled in the southeastern Gaza province, a Frelimo bastion, and civil society groups have expressed concern about the size of the increase.

They also estimate that there are around 300,000 “ghost voters” on electoral rolls — names on the electoral roll not aligned with real, potential voters.

“We definitely have some irregularities that put stains on the whole process,” said Hermenegildo Mulhovo of election monitoring group Sala da Paz.

The situation escalated last week, when the head of a local election observation mission was shot dead by members of a special police unit in Gaza’s capital Xai-Xai.

Lutero Simango, an MP of the country’s third biggest party MDM, accused Frelimo of “using all state means, including police and secret services, to intimidate people”.

Frelimo suffered its worst result at the ballot box — 51.8 percent — in local elections last year and has been severely weakened in recent years.

In 2016 it was revealed the government secretly borrowed $2 billion, sparking the worst financial crisis in the country’s history and uncovering a vast corruption network with links to the regime.

The government is also battling to recover from two devastating cyclones in March which displaced nearly two million people. 

And a shadowy jihadist insurgency that has killed hundreds in the far north has delayed development of one of the government’s biggest selling points — the discovery of vast gas reserves that is hoped to put billions in state coffers and lift millions out of poverty.

The instability has already forced the National Election Commission to close 10 polling booths, however first Preliminary results are expected to be announced on Thursday. 

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