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Tunisia's elections at 11% turnout, further shakes Kais Saeid's credibility

Tunisian voters headed back to the polls to elect a new parliament after an unsuccessful first roundup, confirming predominant indifference to politics and concerns over their economic and social situation amid a soaring cost-of-living crisis.
A man walks past an electoral billboard for the Tunisian national election scheduled for January 29, in Tunisia's capital Tunis, on January 25, 2023. (Photo by FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images)

TUNIS — Tunisia held the second round of legislative elections on Sunday, registering only 11% turnout, with opposition framing it as a rejection of President Kais Saied and his power grab last year. 

“Almost 90% of Tunisian voters ignored this piece of theater and refused to be involved in the process...I call on political groups and civil society to join hands to work for change, in the form of Kais Saied’s departure and early presidential elections," Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, head of the country’s main opposition the National Salvation Front, said on Monday. 

After the closing of all polls, the provisional turnout estimated by Tunisia’s electoral commission, the Independent High Authority for Elections (known by its French acronyms ISIE), stood at just 11.3% out of nearly 8 million registered voters. The apathy was seen as a combination of both a rejection of Saeid's moves to grant himself unlimited powers, and a heightened concern over economic conditions in the country. 

The runoff follows an overwhelmingly snubbed tour that took place in mid-December and saw a strikingly low participation rate of 11.22%, and resulted in only 23 candidates elected.

The election is set to confirm 131 seats in the 161-member parliament with 262 candidates running for office, including just 34 women.

Preliminary results will be announced no later than Wednesday, with the final result made public in the first week of March at the latest, the ISIE said.

The electoral authority said in the last few days that it hoped more Tunisians would go to the polling centers. But the turnout proved to be disappointing this time, too, despite the ISIE’s adopted measures to drum up voter interest during the campaign, including publication of profiles and programs of contestants, and televised debates.

On polling day, people appeared largely disengaged, reflecting the general mood of a population more concerned about rising inflation (now above 10%), high unemployment and shortages of staple foodstuffs, fostering growing dissatisfaction toward Saied.

A number of voting centers in Tunis were reported to be relatively quiet.

At the “Poste” school polling center in La Soukra neighborhood, Salma Ben Khedher, a retired biological pharmacist, was convinced of her vote. “I’m for changing and restarting from scratch. I hope the next deputies will vote for change, for the future of our country, so that we can move forward,” she told Al-Monitor.

Sitting at a coffeeshop near the ballot station, Alaa Ltifi, a waiter at a restaurant, looked pensive. He has never voted and won’t make an exception for this election. The young man is planning to move abroad soon. “What happened with the old parliament made me indifferent,” he told Al-Monitor, blaming the post-2011 political establishment for Tunisia’s critical situation. “Because of what parties did to the country, we are now hating these new candidates too.”

At the “2 Mars” school polling station in the popular district of Hay Ettadhamen, few people had turned up by 10 a.m., according to polling staff who observed the same attendance in the first round.

Ayari Ammara just cast his ballot validating his choice for a male contender he has known for a few years. “I don’t know his program, but I trust him because he’s my neighbor,” the retired man told Al-Monitor. “Political parties caused trouble for us. I give my trust to Kais Saied; he’s heading on the right path.”

At the same voting venue, a man in his 30s with two children, was rushing to the ballot box. “I’m going to vote for my neighbor. The one you know is better than the one you don’t know,” he told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

Nearby, Mohamed, a barber who only gave his first name, stood outside the shop where he works. “I’m not voting today. I have no trust whatsoever,” he told Al-Monitor, pointing to the deteriorating living conditions and penury of basic food supplies. 

His colleague Mohamed Ali said he would not vote either. “I’m not interested. I just care about making a living for myself and my family,” he said.

Sunday's vote was the latest in a series of exceptional measures imposed by Saied since July 25, 2021, when he seized far-reaching executive powers. In addition to suspending and then dissolving the parliament and dismissing the government, Saied has dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council, issued legislations by decree and approved a new constitution through a referendum last summer that vastly expanded the presidential powers.

The majority of political parties that view Saied’s actions as a de facto coup and consolidation of a one-man rule, boycotted the parliamentary polls. Opposition parties have already called on the president to quit because of low electoral participation in December’s vote. They deem these elections as just another step in a coup initiated by the chief of state.

Under the new electoral law amended through a decree issued by the Tunisian leader — which reduces the role of political parties — candidates were chosen individually instead of via party lists, which may have also contributed to the results.

The voting happened against a backdrop of prosecutions targeting several political opponents, and protests against the president’s rule called by opposition groups to mark the Jan. 14 revolution anniversary.

Crucially, Tunisians were once again called to vote a year and a half since Saied’s power grab sparked political turmoil, and after years of worsening economic woes and political crisis. Exhaustion among citizens unsurprisingly led to little to no interest at the ballot box.

The meager turnout in this final round puts in question Saied’s popular legitimacy, which could mean a setback for the credibility of the elections and for that of the next parliament.

With a chamber stripped of its powers after the constitutional changes wanted by Saied, it will be easier for the head of state to control it without large parliamentary blocs.

The new assembly would not be able to appoint a government or censure it except under draconian conditions, and it would be almost impossible to hold the president to account.

With Saied increasingly detached from reality, and in the absence of concrete action, many supporters of his takeover have become critical of his policies. Critics doubt the election of a new legislature will bring the solutions the country needs.

Khansa Ben Tarjem, visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, talked to Al-Monitor about the economy and a new parliament. “We’re going to have an assembly without much legitimacy, with a president who concentrates powers, who’s not interested in the economy, while the country is facing an unprecedented economic crisis,” she said.

She noted that Saied's legitimacy is “partly at stake” in that he changed the constitution to put in place a new political system that, to his mind, would have involved more people. Yet those same people “do not seem interested” in his project. According to Tarjem, the president has isolated himself from almost all organized political and social forces.

Tunisia’s economic crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic-induced slowdown and the fallout of the Ukraine crisis, has added to citizens’ widespread disillusionment with politics.

Al-Monitor/Premise poll released this month found 68% majority of the population in Egypt, Turkey, Yemen, Tunisia and Iraq worried about their ability to access food in the coming months.

The legislative vote was held in the shadow of Tunisia’s protracted negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a loan worth $1.9 billion. The new program has yet to be secured, despite reaching staff-level agreement last October.

Moody’s credit ratings agency downgraded Tunisian debt on Friday, saying the North African country would likely default on sovereign loans.

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