By James M. Dorsey
Political parties and prominent businessmen hope soccer will give them a competitive edge in Tunisia's first election since the ousting in January of President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali scheduled for October 23.
Parties are lining up prominent soccer players as candidates while businessmen are leveraging their soccer club board memberships in advance of the election for a constituent assembly that will be charged with drafting a new constitution, the basis for free and fair parliamentary elections.
Some 100 parties are competing in the election in the country that sparked the popular revolt sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Tunisian President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali was the first Arab autocrat to be forced by the revolt to resign after decades in power.
With Islamists emerging as a strong force in Tunisia as well as in Egypt and Libya, the three Arab countries that have put autocracy behind them, Tunisia’s election is widely seen as an indicator how parties will work together and what role the Islamists will play.
Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahada Party, which was brutally suppressed by the Ben Ali regime is expected to emerge as the largest party.
Its Islamist rival, the Justice and Development Party, modelled after its successful Turkish namesake, is betting on soccer striker Yassine Bouchaala to enhance its chances in the poll.
The Free National Party (FNP) has locked in goalkeeper-turned soccer executive Chokri al-Ouaer and the Initiative Party (IP) chaired by former Ben Ali foreign minister Kamel Morjane, one of 20 successors to ousted President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali's dismantled Constitutional Democratic Rally (CDR), is betting on Tunisian national defender Saber Ben Frej.
Mr. El-Ouaer benefits from his position as technical manager of Esperance Sportive de Tunis, the country’s most popular club. He is standing as an FNP candidate in a Tunis district. Headed and funded by popular businessman Slim Riahi, a successful businessman, FNP has sparked controversy with its pioneering of paid political advertising – a concept that was unknown in Me. Ben Ali’s Tunisia and has given the party a competitive edge.
By associating with soccer, the parties and businessmen are building on a longstanding Tunisian tradition of exploiting the game for political benefit. Mr. Ben Ali used soccer events to further his political aims and garner support. Esperance, one of the country's most crowned clubs, was chaired by Mr. Ben Ali’s son-in-law, Slim Chiboub, who like the president has fled the country to evade charges of corruption.
The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) long viewed as the main legal opposition to Mr. Ben Ali's regime, is deeply divided about the exploitation of soccer in its election campaign after Club Athletique Bizertin chairman and businessman Mehd Ben Gharbia decided to run for office on the PDP ticket.
Other businessman-turned-politicians, including Hamouda Louzir, interim chairman of the Avenir Sportif de la Marsa (ASM), IP candidate Mongi B'har, chairman of the Club Sportif de Hammam-Lif (CSHL), Saber Ben Frej, and a former chairman of Club Sportief Sfaxien, a club in a southern suburb of Tunis, are also seeking to capitalize on their association with soccer.
The notion of soccer players and official mingling with political dinosaurs, revolutionaries and intellectuals has sparked a rash of satirical comments and jokes in social media with sarcastic speculation rampant that Tunisia’s constitution is likely to be drafted in Tunis’ in Rades rather than the Bardo Chamber of Deputies.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.