Upcoming legislative elections will set Tunisia's future political path of action

Upcoming legislative elections will set Tunisia's future political path of action
Tunisians will make their voices heard in what will be a decisive election for the parliamentary regime, but some voters are now showing less interest in the campaigns.
7 min read
04 October, 2019
Supporters of Nahda Movement are seen during a gathering within an election campaign [Getty]

Weeks after the first round of the presidential elections, Tunisians are called to vote in Sunday's legislative polls amid great uncertainty and growing disillusionment with politics. 

With the change in the electoral calendar to bring forward the presidential election after Essebi's death, the poll pushed the legislative elections into the background.

The campaign for the parliamentary polls began at a rather slow place due to the focus of voters on the presidential ones that were held on September 15, the day after the official campaign period kicked off.

It is continuing steadily albeit quietly in the run up to the October 6 vote, with little attention received from the public and the media.

Tunisians are still digesting the results of the first tour of the presidential elections which saw two outsiders, constitutional law professor Kais Saied and imprisoned media mogul Karoui, advance to the run-off.

They have shown greater interest in who will become the new head of state. Public attitudes ahead of the legislative election are likely informed by the outcome of the presidential one.

"There is some level of indifference, and I believe people are still thinking over who's going to be the next president. This question is still in the minds of Tunisians, that's hiding the importance of parliamentarian elections," observed Monia Mazigh, a Tunisian-bred academic, author and human rights advocate.  

The anti-system vote, and the public's antipathy to the political establishment, may carry over to Sunday's legislative polls.

To add to that, an exorbitant number of electoral lists and candidates are competing for the 217-seat parliament. Voters will elect from a total of 15,737 candidates on 1,572 electoral lists in 33 districts. The lists include 163 coalition lists, 687 party lists and 722 independent lists.

Having to choose from over 15,000 contestants which ones can represent them best, it is unrealistic for citizens to scrutinise all the lists and candidates, which many fear could result in "blind votes".  

Many Tunisians appear little informed about the different election programmes, undecided or not interested in the upcoming voting amidst palpable distrust with the political elite, especially political parties, compounded by high unemployment, rampant inflation and worsened living standards.

I still can't make up my mind for these elections. The programmes are not very clear, and I'm finding it hard to get reliable information

"I still can't make up my mind for these elections. The programmes are not very clear, and I'm finding it hard to get reliable information," Sanaa, a telecommunications employee, noted, "but I'm going to vote, I think that if we want a change we have to vote wisely."

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Ouissam, a lawyer, commented, "I haven't decided who I'm going to vote for, I'm not sure. We don't know a lot of the candidates, we don't feel confident about them. We have to vote anyway, I'm sure we will regret our choices, but that's how it goes, this is a nascent democracy."

Twenty-one-year-old Hedy added, "I'm not going to vote. I'm not convinced. There are so many lists to choose from, the programmes are not clear and they look almost the same."

Mazigh went on to reflect on the mix of confusion and apathy, "People are very much lost and uninterested. They don't really know which parties are competing and which ones they may vote for. They don't want to hear about politicians any more, they're sick and tired of them."

She recently saw some parliamentary contenders running their campaigns in the street in a Tunis neighbourhood, with passers by neither taking flyers handed over to them nor listening, without even stopping.

Yet, the October 6 elections take on a critical significance for what is at stake.

In Tunisia, the parliament and government are more influential in setting policy than the president given the nature of the parliamentary regime. 

In Tunisia, the parliament and government are more influential in setting policy than the president given the nature of the parliamentary regime

Whichever party or alliance comes out winning in the forthcoming vote will play a pivotal role in setting the agenda and defining the country's future political landscape.

Tunisia's parliament chooses the prime minister, whose government controls most dossiers. The makeup of a new government after the parliamentary contest will be key to determining economic policies going forward.

As to how citizens are going to pick their candidates out, Walid Besbes, a Tunisian political observer, said, "People won't vote on the basis of an electoral programme." This is because, in his view, there is "no clear differentiation" between the programmes.

Rather, he thinks they will select according to a certain message (or main idea) conveyed by the candidate or list which they can relate to.

"Given the general political apathy, there is also a trend of turning to the independent lists which embody the rejection of established parties," he added highlighting that electors in the interior regions are more prone to opting for those aspirants who are known in their districts or towns.

There will be those identifying with the centrist, secularist camp, others aligning with the Islamist current, or endorsing the leftist movement, whilst others will lean towards the independents.

What will come out of Sunday's election is very much uncertain. The Muslim Ennahdha party, the largest bloc in parliament, hopes to secure its political future in the legislative polls after failing to reach the presidential run-off with its candidate Abdelfattah Mourou finishing third.

The political consensus between the religious movement and secular party Nidaa Tounes of the past five years is over.

A strong positioning by Ennahda in the legislative elections could antagonise non-Islamist forces and bring back the country to the political turbulence of the "troika" years (2011-2013).

In a news conference on Friday, Ennahdha's leader Rached Ghannouchi said the party would seek to govern alone or in partnership with "the forces of the revolution".

The Hirak al-Irdaa party and the Democratic Current party led by Mohamed Abbou are the main parties that supported the revolution.

The Muslim movement ruled out a government coalition with Nabil Karoui's party, if Kais Saied won the presidency and Karoui's Qalb Tounes gained the majority in parliament.

Ennahda's leaders are backing Saied in the second round, and would be keen on ruling in tandem with him if they win enough seats in the legislative assembly to have a major say in how the country is run.

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On the other hand, the general hostility to the establishment could impact Ennahdha as well as the other major parties that have ruled the country since 2011, and are now renewing efforts in the parliamentary race trying to earn as many seats as possible.

Secularist, centrist candidates such as Prime Minister Youssef Chahed from Tahya Tounes political party and his Minister of Defence Abdelkrim Zbidi were also defeated in the first round of the presidential elections widening the splits among secularist parties and diminishing the chances that modernist parties would perform well in the legislative vote.

While Zbidi blamed the prime minister for the failure of the democratic camp in the presidential election, Chahed appealed to Zbidi and other leaders of democratic parties to unite forces for the parliamentary elections.

As for the independent candidates, they stand good chances against major political parties in the legislative race after winning the municipal elections in May 2018.

Observers like Besbes saw in the electorate "increasing awareness" about the importance of fighting corruption, and having a strong state that upholds the rule of law. Some hint at the possibility that parties may use the anti-corruption vote to counter a win of Karoui who remains in prison on charges of money laundering and tax evasion.

Mazigh argued that the parties, coalitions or lists that will be successful are those who are going to look more "honest" or "trustworthy" and closer to bread-and-butter issues of the populace.

"Tunisians need some kind of respite in the increasing cost of living, in the deterioration of the health service, in the degradation of infrastructure," the author said.

"At the end of the day, what they really care about is who's going to improve their economic situation."

With many electors ready to punish the system, the political map emerging from the next voting set is likely to be more fragmented than in 2014.

One crucial factor in the turnout on Sunday will be the voter fatigue in light of the anti-establishment sentiment demonstrated by the first tour of the presidential race.

If a lot of Tunisians are reluctant to either vote for the same people or voting altogether, others are willing to bet on new faces in the hope to see real change.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec