Tunisia sees unprecedented low turnout in controversial elections

Only 8.8 percent of Tunisian voters have cast ballots in parliamentary elections, authorities announced, after most political parties boycotted the vote as a charade.

Opposition parties — including the Salvation Front coalition that the popular Ennahda party is part of — boycotted Saturday’s polls because they say the vote is part of President Kais Saied’s efforts to consolidate power.

After the polls closed at 1700 GMT (6 pm local), the voter turnout appeared lower than in previous legislative elections in 2014 and 2019, as only 8.8% of Tunisians cast ballots, according to provisional figures.

Salvation Front called for President Saied to quit office, saying he had lost his legitimacy after a low turnout.

Reporters observed deserted polling stations during Saturday’s balloting — although they also saw people queuing outside several polling places around the capital, Tunis.

“It’s really a stretch to call what occurred today an election,” said Saida Ounissi, a former member of the parliament that the president dissolved in March after years of political deadlock and economic stagnation.

Ounissi, who also served as minister and was elected in two previous elections to the legislature on the Ennahda party list, acknowledged that she was “a bit bitter” at the political situation as the country faced an unprecedented financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic and the fallout from the war in Ukraine.

“People were very angry at the parliament because of the deteriorating economy that is due to various crises, and the president capitalised on that anger to crush the parliament, stifle democracy and seize more power,” Ounissi said.

Broad executive powers

Parliament last met in July 2021. Since then, Saied, who was elected in 2019 and still enjoys the backing of more than half of the electorate, has also curbed the independence of the judiciary and weakened parliament’s powers.

In a referendum in July, Tunisians approved a constitution that hands broad executive powers to the president. Saied, who spearheaded the project and wrote the text himself, made full use of the mandate in September, changing the electoral law to diminish the role of political parties.

The new law reduces the number of members of the lower house of parliament from 217 to 161, who are now to be elected directly instead of via a party list. And lawmakers who “do not fulfil their roles” can be removed if 10 percent of their constituents lodge a formal request.

Only 127 women are among the 1,055 candidates running in Saturday’s election.

Saied’s critics accuse him of endangering the democratic process. But many others believe that scrapping the party lists puts individuals ahead of political parties and will improve elected officials’ accountability.

Many are exasperated with political elites, welcome the president’s political reforms and see the vote for a new parliament as a chance to solve their dire economic crisis.

The vote comes on the 12th anniversary of the event that sparked the Arab Spring — when a Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire because of the dire economic situation under the long-time rule of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Bouazizi died weeks later. His act of desperation prompted protests that led to Ben Ali’s ouster and provoked similar uprisings around the Arab world.



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