With less than a month to go until Tunisia’s first election since its revolution, the rapid rise of a free-spending newcomer, the Free Patriotic Union (UPL), has fuelled a heated debate about the role of money in the country’s transition to democracy.
It has also led to a hastily-imposed ban on all political advertising by parties.
Slim Riahi, the UPL’s 39-year-old businessman founder, made his fortune in oil services and property development in Libya, where he grew up as an expatriate. When his party’s sophisticated advertising campaign began in July – with posters showing five clasped hands and the slogan: “Let’s unite” – he was unknown to most of his fellow Tunisians.
But by late August, when he announced that as well as sponsoring the UPL he wanted to buy into a big newspaper publisher, Tunisian bloggers were asking if he was trying to be a “Tunisian Berlusconi”.
Scores of small parties have been founded in the explosion of political activity since the revolution that overthrew the regime of Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali in January, but none has the UPL’s financial clout.
By August, the UPL campaign, using posters, TV and the web, was depicting factory workers, middle managers and housewives jabbing index fingers assertively downwards and demanding “Democracy …Now!” against a background coloured the revolutionary-red of the Tunisian flag.
It drowned out the efforts of the only two other parties investing in advertising, the centrist Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) and centre-left Ettakatol: both headed by long-time political opponents of the Ben Ali regime.
In response to UPL’s dominance, Tunisia’s electoral commission banned political advertising earlier this month, saying that it wanted to promote a level playing field between large and small parties ahead of the October 23 poll to elect a constituent assembly.
The UPL, along with the PDP, challenged the legality of the ban – although the UPL, unlike the PDP, withdrew its advertising pending a ruling.
UPL’s strong media presence has nonetheless paid dividends. By early September it claimed to be the third most recognisable party, although, this was contradicted by an opinion poll in which only 3.5 per cent of those surveyed said they had heard of the party.
Campaign advisers believe that although Mr Riahi is not standing for election himself, his relative youth compared with other party leaders will be a vote winner.
The UPL’s platform includes plans for real estate developments in Tunisia’s south-east, as a potential cross-border financial services hub, and its promises range from increased investment in agriculture and high-tech industry, to respect for the country’s Arab-Islamic heritage.
What is worrying some commentators, however, is Mr Riahi’s dual role as a politician and business investor.
Mr Riahi’s Libyan connection forced the UPL to quell rumours that it was funded by the family of Muammer Gaddafi, the ousted Libyan leader.
Mr Riahi, the son of a dissident Tunisian judge exiled in Libya from 1980, explained in an FT interview that his oilfield installation and maintenance businesses in Libya were profitable because of a lack of serious competition, and he branched out into property development. He said that he hoped to resume his Libyan operations in coming months.
Over the summer Mr Riahi invested heavily in Tunisia. He built up a $20m stake, via the Tunis bourse, in Carthage Cement, in which Belhassen Trabelsi, Mr Ben Ali’s brother-in-law, was a leading shareholder until his stake was confiscated by the state following the revolution.
Mr Riahi has also said he hopes to take 20 per cent of the historic newspaper publisher Dar Assabah. Sakher Materi, a Ben Ali son-in-law, bought into the family owned group in 2009, but likewise had his shareholding confiscated.
Meanwhile, Nahda, the Islamist opposition party, and the PDP, both of which are said to enjoy significant outside funding, unsuccessfully opposed new legislation that now imposes a ceiling of $42,000 on campaign contributions by individuals, and outlaws corporate contributions and foreign funding altogether.
The UPL has said it would be happy to publish its accounts in full. Its third wave of posters features the five linked hands again, and the slogan: “We shall write our new constitution with new faces and clean hands.”
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