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Tunisia elections: Kais Saied's failed political roadmap

Tunisia elections: Kais Saied's failed political roadmap
6 min read
31 January, 2023
In-depth: The Tunisian parliamentary election, marked by a low turnout, further challenges the legitimacy of Kais Saied's political project, despite his efforts to cement one-man rule.

Tunisians were again called to the ballot box on Sunday for the second round of legislative elections after parliament was dissolved by presidential decree in March 2022.

After the polls had closed, Tunisia’s Electoral Commission (ISIE) President Farouk Bouasker announced that just 11.3 percent of the nearly 8 million eligible voters had cast their ballots.

The vote was held after 131 seats in the 161-member assembly remained undecided following a first round of voting held on 17 December that saw a historically low turnout (11.22 percent).

There were 262 candidates competing for seats in the first chamber of parliament, the House of Representatives. Only 34 were women.

Preliminary results will be announced on 1 February, with the final results to be made public on 4 March at the latest, the ISIE said.

Tunisians showed little to no enthusiasm on election day itself. The campaigning that should have encouraged voters to turn up at the polls in bigger numbers was a dull affair, with few posters on the walls and few well-known candidates.

“I opt for radically changing the old politics. Kais Saied is starting all over again with a new vision, doing away with those political forces who had their hands on state resources,” Mohamed Ben Khedher, a 70-year-old retired political scientist, told TNA after casting his vote at the Poste school ballot station in Tunis’ La Soukra district.

“We played all our cards, today we don’t have another choice,” he added, stressing that the candidate of his choice is a woman who is fully committed to working for the country’s good.

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On her way out of the same voting centre, 67-year-old Rafika Juini was clear about her choice. She decided to vote in the election after selecting a candidate based on their political programme.

“At least Kais Saied is not a thief, unlike the politicians we had for ten years doing nothing,” Juini told The New Arab. “I have hope in the next parliament, and that the political parties will let the new MPs work”.

A short walk away from the school, Rawda, 24, a master’s student in biology, who only gave her first name, showed little interest, preferring to focus on her thesis. “I’m hoping the next elected deputies will get along in the new chamber,” she said doubtfully.

Not far from another polling centre in the working-class neighbourhood of Hay Ettadhamen, a 50-year-old woman, who asked to be called by her initial ‘M’, expressed hopelessness about the election.

Just 11.3 percent of the nearly 8 million eligible voters cast their ballots on Sunday. [Getty]

“Look at the situation we are in. Everyone thinks about only their interest,” she told The New Arab. “Only God will help this country, no individual or party will”.

Struggling with a worsening economic crisis, inflation of over 10 percent, and repeated shortages of essential commodities and food, citizens have more urgent priorities than politics.

Sunday’s parliamentary runoff vote, which was the last stage of President Kais Saied’s political roadmap, capped a year and a half of political turbulence since he dismissed the government, froze parliament, and seized full executive authority in July 2021.

The head of state later moved to seize control of the judiciary and pushed through a constitution in July 2022 that gave his office almost unlimited executive powers.

The main political forces in the country oppose Saied’s project, with many of them calling it an anti-democratic coup. As with the first round, most of the side-lined opposition parties boycotted the vote.

Candidates were running as individuals rather than on party lists as per the new electoral law issued by the Tunisian president.

On the anniversary of the 2011 Tunisian revolution, thousands of people rallied on 14 January in Tunis against the president’s rule amid calls from opposition groups to step down. Even Tunisians who largely supported Saied's takeover have grown increasingly angry at the economic crisis, with soaring food prices and unemployment on the rise.

Saied has faced mounting political pressure from his opponents to resign following the record-low turnout in December’s elections. Criticism of his policies, and his project in general, have continuously emerged in light of his domestic and external quasi-isolation. But the opposition remains deeply divided, posing little threat to his grip on power.

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Several critics of Saied have been targeted by authorities ahead of the election, in what the opposition believes is a campaign of intimidation to curtail dissent against the Tunisian leader. Opponents have been jailed by military courts, detained on unsubstantial charges, and investigated under the infamous new cybercrime law Decree 54.

Rights groups say military trials of civilians have become more and more common in Tunisia since Saied’s power grab.

The overall disinterest in voting represents a blow to the chief of state, who was hoping to secure public support to legitimise the final pillar of his remaking of Tunisian politics, which included introducing a new legislature stripped of most powers under constitutional changes.

Amendments to the electoral law, which have reduced the role of political parties, may have contributed to a low voter turnout. But the widespread political fatigue of the Tunisian electorate over a powerless assembly was a crucial factor behind the disappointing result.

Even Tunisians who largely supported Saied's takeover have grown increasingly angry at the economic crisis. [Getty]

The outcome may undermine the legitimacy of the president and the upcoming parliament, which will be largely toothless under a hyper-presidential constitution that makes it almost impossible for it to dismiss the government or hold the president to account.

“It’s very hard to justify the legitimacy of a political regime without popular backing,” Aymen Zaghdoudi, professor assistant of public law at the Institute of Press and Information Sciences in Tunis, told The New Arab. “Such a turnout could impede the progress of the political project of Saied”.

Zaghdoudi noted how the election has shown that Tunisians are “totally disconnected” from the political process. “What matters to Tunisians is how the government is going to rule in a way that brings solutions to their daily lives,” he affirmed.

The Tunisian academic also said that the entry of new MPs will likely result in future political tensions. “It will result in a mosaic where it’s very difficult to get a clear majority, instability is set to remain,” he said.

The new assembly, by bringing in a whole set of individuals each with their different programmes and ideas, may lead to a fragmented legislative body with divisions likely to emerge among the future representatives.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec