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Tunisia’s opposition calls on president to quit after low turnout election

Saturday elections were marked by voter apathy, official numbers showed turnout standing at a slim 8.8%, in the first vote since President Kais Saied's power grab in 2021.
Tunisian demonstrators take part in a rally against President Kais Saied, called for by the opposition "National Salvation Front" coalition, in the capital Tunis, on December 10, 2022. (Photo by FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images)

TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisia's opposition coalition called on Sunday for President Kais Saied to leave his position, claiming he had lost his legitimacy after record low turnout in Saturday's parliamentary election.

The opposition coalition known as the Salvation Front, which includes the Islamist Ennahda movement, called on Saied to quit and for "massive protests and sit-ins" to demand fresh presidential elections.

"What happened today is an earthquake. From this moment we consider Saied an illegitimate president and demand he resign after this fiasco," said Salvation Front leader Nejib Chebbi. Official results are expected to come in on Monday.

On Saturday, 12 years since the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi sparked the uprisings of the Arab Spring, Tunisians were called to vote on a new parliament, in a day marked by widespread voters' apathy and disenchantment.

Official numbers showed very low turnout with 803,638 of the country's 9,136,502 registered voters, that is a slim 8.8%, participating in the legislative election, the Electoral Commission (ISIE) said after the closure of ballot stations, recording the lowest turnout rate in Tunisia's electoral history.

By comparison, Tunisia's previous parliament was elected with a participation of around 40% in 2019, and over 60% in 2014.

Saturday's was the first vote cast in the first legislative elections since Saied suspended the parliament last year in a power grab.

Under the amended electoral law issued by Saied in mid-September, 161 members of parliament are elected directly through a two-round majoritarian system and voters choose single individuals instead of party lists. Most of the final 1,055 candidates, with only 122 women, are unknown to the public. Many constituencies have one or no candidates running at all.

The new regulations sideline political parties, most of whom boycotted the polls calling Saied’s actions a “coup.”

Several polling stations around the capital Tunis were reported to be largely quiet. Ahead of the vote, a number of Tunisians expressed unconcern about the election. Many knew little or nothing about the candidates, and some said their electoral districts had one or two runners on the list making their choice too limited.

At the Rue des Orangers school voting center, in Le Bardo district, Selima, an architecture student who gave only her first name, was resolute in her right to vote. “I was clear about my choice. I don’t want to be like those unsatisfied watching from the sidelines,” the young woman told Al-Monitor implying that she had cast a blank vote. “Whether voted from party lists or individually, candidates are still making big promises without concrete programs,” she said. Her father, Hedi, standing nearby, shared very similar views.

Ahlem Souly, who just voted at the same ballot station, was partly hopeful. “I trust the candidate I selected for what he can achieve for the people of Bardo,” she told Al-Monitor after voting while commenting on the contender’s community work and organizing. Souly wished Tunisians won’t have to witness the squabbles between politicians like in the previous legislature. “This country is full of thieves. I’m not 100% sure of this next parliament,” she added. “I just pray that everything will be fine.”

Walking out of the Hedi Chaker school polling station, in another part of Le Bardo, Khemais Mejri, a retired professor, looked optimistic about his vote. After finding out about the contestants in his area, and checking their programs on Facebook, he picked the one he deemed “the best.” He was confident that the president’s road map would take the country forward. “I’m with Mr. Saied. We need to have this new parliament,” Mejri told Al-Monitor.

His enthusiasm contrasted with a retired police officer, who said he would vote blank.

At 11:45 a.m., a ballot station in the working-class neighborhood of Hay Ezzouhour, looked completely empty. Not far from the voting venue, two young men sitting at an outdoor cafe were categorically staying away from the polls.

“I don’t trust them, neither parties nor individuals. We voted in the past, there’s no result,” Ghassan Ghastawi told Al-Monitor. Complaining about the rife unemployment and poor working conditions, he underscored how salaries can be so low to be just enough to cover food expenses with prices on the rise.

Despite holding a diploma of dental prosthetics, Ghastawi, 26, who is now unemployed, has only found poor-paying jobs. Previously working in a laboratory, he used to earn 600 Tunisian dinars ($190).

“I voted for Kais Saied in 2019. But look at the situation now; people can’t even find basics like milk and butter,” he said. His friend next to him expressed the same refusal to vote.

The early parliamentary election that Saied presented as part of a road map to recovery for Tunisia is seen by critics as the latest stage in consolidating his one-man rule.

With a weakened parliament, it is unlikely that there will be any major changes given that the Tunisian leader has almost unlimited powers.

While Saturday’s vote is arguably aimed at granting legitimacy to the presidency, the very low participation rate will further motivate Saied’s opponents to question the legitimacy of his moves and the credibility of this very election. This may pose a major challenge to the president’s regime, which could lead to political instability and in turn block the chain of international financing at a time when the country needs to secure a bailout of state finances to avoid financial collapse.

The final results will be announced on Monday after the conclusion of any appeal processes taken to Tunisia’s Administrative Court.

The new chamber’s final make-up is not expected to be determined until March after any second-round run-offs have been completed.

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