A leading presidential candidate in Tunisia has been banned from running after parliament passed an amendment to the country's electoral law. Nabil Karoui, the media magnate and a former Essebsi supporter, announced his decision to run for president on 28 May in a live interview with his broadcaster Nessma TV, playing up his highly publicised charity work.
Nicknamed the "Arab Berlusconi" by some, Karoui had been shown in some polls to be leading in the presidential campaigns (ahead of the Prime Minister) in the race to replace outgoing President Beij Caid Essebsi in November.
However, the amendment to the electoral law that was passed on Tuesday places new restrictions - which apply retroactively - on the activities that a candidate can carry out prior to the elections, including distributing direct aid to citizens and receiving unfair political publicity. The amendment says that Tunisia’s elections commission must reject candidates who benefit from “charitable associations” or foreign funding during the year before an election.
A statement from Karoui's office condemned the move as "a dangerous sign of the return of dictatorship and retreat from the electoral process". Karoui has been accused by regulators and some politicians of using Nessma to bolster his ambitions.
Tunisia, whose 2011 revolution toppled longtime autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and sparked the "Arab Spring" uprisings, has been hailed as a model of democratisation in the region despite suffering economic woes and militant attacks. It is against this backdrop that the media magnate believes parliament's actions were "a strong setback to [the country's] nascent democracy".
It is a law dedicated to my exclusion from the race after polls revealed that millions of Tunisians intend to vote for me,” said Karoui.
Karoui is said to have sent a letter to Tunisian parliamentarians before the vote on Tuesday, HuffPost Maghreb reported, in which he urged them to "hold onto their conscience and be just".
"The international community is watching and history will judge you," the letter reads, according to the news website. "Leave it to the ballot box to decide and don't subject yourselves to these low maneuvers."
It appears that the media mogul's woes began when he announced his intention to run for the highest office. With Essebsi, Tunisia's first democratically elected president, having declared his stance in April that he did not plan to stand for re-election, Karoui saw it as an opportunity for someone younger to step up to the plate. Despite his prominence, he had been selling himself as a non-status quo candidate who had not served in any previous government.
All the parties have failed. People want new faces and new offers in different things," he said. "Maybe the best thing is that I don't have experience in ruling."
In a series of acts that can only be construed as aimed at taming his raw ambition, it seems as though the media mogul has rubbed a few people the wrong way.
In April, police stormed the offices of Karoui’s Nessma television station and took it off the air over accusations that it had breached broadcasting rules, which Nessma termed as a move intended to silence its voice criticizing the government. The police raid in April followed the revocation of the Nessma channel’s license last year by broadcasting regulator HAICA. It fined Nessma for broadcasts which it described as exploiting poor people and promoting the media mogul's political agenda.
Nessma rejected the fines and stated that it did not recognize the rulings by HAICA, which it said were motivated by the broadcaster’s criticism of the government. The government, a coalition of the secular Tahya Tounes party and the Ennahda party, has denied any responsibility for rulings by the HAICA. Nessma has since resumed broadcasting without a license and police to date have taken no further action.
It is noted that Karoui founded the Khalil Tounes Foundation in 2017 to provide aid to the needy in the economically troubled North African country and the charity garnered widespread publicity thanks in part to coverage by Nessma.
Government spokesman Iyad Dahmani said political parties had been banned from receiving support from charities or foreign funds since 2014, and Tuesday’s decision had extended the measure to independents like Karoui “to protect democracy”.
With Parliamentary elections expected to be held on October 6 and a presidential vote following on November 17, Hamadi Jbeli, the former prime minister, and Karoui are the only candidates who have declared their presidential ambitions. The main political parties are yet to announce their chosen candidates.
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