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Despair grips Tunisia ahead of parliamentary elections

Tunisia's elections: Little hope for Saied's political roadmap
5 min read
13 December, 2022
In-depth: There is widespread apathy about the first legislative election since the new constitution was adopted, with many viewing the vote as bolstering an increasingly autocratic system.

“What election?” Asks Kais ironically when questioned about the upcoming parliamentary vote in Tunisia.

Battling decades of hardship, Kais, like many Tunisians, have responded to the 17 December elections with irony and apathy.

“I have no confidence in a system built on a coup. I don’t trust anyone anymore,” the 50-year-old told The New Arab.

Early legislative elections in Tunisia are part of the post-Kais Saied power grab which took place in July last year.

After dissolving parliament and the Supreme Judicial Council, issuing new legislation, and ruling the country with a near-total grip on power for months, Kais Saeid has gradually started re-establishing a political order in the country.

In late 2021, Saied appointed a cabinet widely seen as a puppet government for his one man-rule

On 25 July, Saied’s controversial draft constitution, which set up a presidency akin to autocracy, was approved after 92.3 per cent of voters in the referendum supported it.

However, the constitutional referendum was widely boycotted by citizens and political opposition. The 12 December legislative elections are already evoking a similar sense of deja vu.

At a popular cafe in the capital Tunis, the World Cup seems the only competition Tunisians care about at the moment.

Glued to the big screen broadcasting the quarter-final match of Argentina vs Netherlands, few were interested in talking about the long-awaited elections.

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“The only candidate I am rooting for now is Morocco to win the world cup,” said Ismail, a 30-year-old Tunisian man, jokingly. "Let us be happy and don’t remind us of that cursed system we are living under.”

On 25 November, the electoral campaign in Tunisia kicked off in a subdued atmosphere. It is set to end on 15 December.

Unlike previous rounds, banners and photos of candidates are not cluttering the streets this year, mainly due to a new electoral law.

On 15 September, Tunisian President Kais Saied approved new legislation that provided him with wide-ranging powers before, during, and after the vote. It also removed quotas for women candidates and candidates under 35, undermining those who were so crucial to the country's gains in gender and age parity.

The law also severely weakens political parties, one of Saied’s main targets during his time in office, as it ends the party-based electoral system and shifts Tunisia to a form of politics centred around individuals.

Tunisians have responded to the 17 December elections with irony and apathy. [Getty]

As applications for candidacy are submitted individually and campaigns cannot receive public financing, low-budget picsart-style banners of little-known candidates have flocked social media prompting mockery against “the absurdity” of Saied’s decree.

“They want me to vote for a vendor. With all due respect to all jobs but we need a politician who understands our worries and knows how to stand for us in the parliament, not this absurdity,” Ahmed, a young Tunisian man, told the TNA.

The previous law of 2014 allowed voters to vote for a single political party list or a bloc containing multiple candidates.

Meanwhile, in this election, voters can only vote for a single candidate in their constituencies, which may overly personalise elections.

Speaking to Tunisian citizens who showed interest in the elections, most said they would likely vote for a “friend” or “a family member” who is running.

So far, twelve parties have boycotted the upcoming elections, namely the Ennahda Movement, which had the majority in the now-dissolved parliament.

Saied's vision for Tunisia

With a banner reading ‘The elections of 17 December represent me’ on his Facebook profile, Safouan, a Tunisian in his late twenties, is one of several Tunisian citizens who continues to argue for the benefits of Saied’s politics.

“This election will allow us to vote for people like us, who live amongst us and know our difficulties perfectly, not some elitist out of touch politician like those we had in the past parliament,” Safouan told TNA.

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The dissolved parliament was far from perfect. For five years, the political majority failed to stabilise Tunisia’s economic situation as unemployment and high living costs continued to hammer the population.

The parliamentary landscape was marked by political chaos where groups were created and dissolved based on conflicts between the political parties. 

This image of a fragmented political class that prioritised power over the people remained carved in the minds of the majority of Tunisians.

“We waited ten years to reach this promised democracy. It is time to move on. I will go to vote hoping that the situation will get better after the election of the parliament,” Khalifa, a Tunisian teacher, told TNA.

As Saied’s new law prevents anyone who has ever been charged with a legal violation from running, most former MPs will not be able to join the race.

So far, twelve parties have boycotted the upcoming elections. [Getty]

After his power grab last year, Saied’s government initiated a harsh crackdown on his political opponents, accusing many of them of electoral crimes. 

Saied’s new decree also criminalises the publication of fake news or rumours and has targeted critics and opponents, with many facing the courts.

For some, Saied is actively seeking to prevent anyone who disagrees with him from seeking office.

Mohamed Ali Ben Ammar, a Tunisian activist and head of a polling office, said that most of the electoral programs submitted to the legislative were “confusing” and “tone-deaf”.

“According to what I personally follow in the programs of the candidates for the upcoming legislative elections, they do not present important changes for the poor or middle and marginalised classes,” added Ben Ammar.

He argues that the question that preoccupies Tunisians the most today is economic hardship.

Tunisia's economy has struggled since the Arab uprising of 2011. However, its problems have been greatly exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, Saied's power grab, the undoing of state institutions, and the fallout from the Ukraine war.

Today, the cash-strapped country is facing dire food and gas shortages as it endeavours to secure a rescue package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's correspondent in Morocco.

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma