TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia’s presidential election on Sept. 15 has a crowded field of candidates, all vying to lead the only democracy to emerge from the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings.
In the country’s first ever televised election debate, eight candidates stood behind podiums on Saturday evening aiming to impress voters.
Tunisia’s president has direct control over foreign and defense policy, and can obstruct legislation agreed by parliament.
A candidate needs a majority of votes to win. If none gets it on Sept. 15, the two candidates with most votes will advance to a second, decisive round.
A government chosen by the parliament, for which elections are coming on Oct. 6, handles other portfolios.
This election has been called early because of the death in July of the incumbent Beji Caid Essebsi. These are some of the most prominent candidates:
As prime minister since 2016, Chahed has carried out a series of tough cuts to public spending through an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan program aimed at reducing Tunisia’s large public debt.
The former agricultural engineer says his coalition government pulled Tunisia back from the brink of economic disaster, but his critics in the unions and elsewhere say spending cuts weakened the economy and hurt the poor.
A former member of the late president’s Nidaa Tounes party, he quarreled with Essebsi’s son and was expelled, prompting him to form his own party.
This summer he revealed that - like many other Tunisians - he also had French nationality, but said he had now renounced it.
The 71-year-old was one of the founders of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, banned for decades before the 2011 revolution, and is now its first candidate for the presidency.
A lawyer, he has distanced himself from the party’s more socially conservative positions and left it in 1991 after it failed to clearly condemn an attack by Islamists.
He rejoined the party after the 2011 revolution and his secular critics say his position as a moderate in the party, along with his jokey manner and traditional dress, disguise more conservative beliefs.
Ennahda has been in several coalition governments since the revolution and its focus appears still to be more on the Oct. 6 parliament election, in which its leader Rached Ghannouchi is standing, than the presidency.
However, Mourou can count on a solid chunk of voters who have backed Ennahda in elections since the revolution while the secular parties have constantly reformed themselves under different leaders and names.
Media mogul Karoui, 56, is running for office from behind bars after being detained last month on charges of money laundering and tax fraud.
He has denied the charges and his party says they are part of an undemocratic conspiracy by the political establishment to keep him from power.
A former member of the late president’s Nidaa Tounes party, he quit and founded a charity in 2017 to fight poverty, the main theme in his campaign.
His critics accuse him of unfairly using both his Nesma TV channel and his charity to advance his own personal political ambitions and in April the media regulator demanded Nesma be pulled off air, saying it had breached broadcasting rules.
Parliament then passed an amendment to the electoral law barring candidates who had benefited from charities or foreign funding during the year before an election. But Essebsi died before signing it into law, allowing Karoui to run.
Zbidi, 69, presents himself as being above party politics and infighting that he says have held back economic reforms in recent years, and says he will change the constitution to resolve deadlock between the presidency and parliament.
He has served twice since 2011 as defense minister, first in a cabinet led by the Islamists of Ennahda and later under Chaded.
A close friend of the late Essebsi, he enjoys the support of secular parties including Nidaa Tounes.
Jomaa, 57, is a former prime minister who worked for French oil major Total and other Western firms. His technocratic 2014-15 government replaced an Ennahda-led cabinet during a period of polarization between secularists and Islamists.
Former president Moncef Marzouki, who came second in the last election in 2014, is also running, as is Hamadi Jebali, a former Ennahda member who was prime minister from 2012-13. Of the two women candidates, Abir Moussi was a supporter of the ousted autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.
Reporting By Tarek Amara, editing by Angus McDowall and Toby Chopra