Tunisia's democratic facade: One step closer to autocratic rule

5 min read
20 December, 2022

Early parliamentary elections in Tunisia saw participation reach an all-time low of 11.22% of registered voters, a reflection of the prevalent political fatigue but also a clear statement of disapproval.

The electoral commission (ISIE) revised the turnout up slightly from the 8.8% it initially announced after the closure of ballot stations. Based on preliminary results, only 21 candidates secured parliamentary seats in the first round and 133 of 161 constituencies will require a second round on 20 January.

The 88.8% voter abstention was an informal referendum on the president’s regime and his vision of remaking Tunisian politics, signalling overwhelming non-acceptance of his political trajectory.

“Kais Saied has created apathy toward politics. Tunisians have lost the sense that voting is important,” Tunisian political analyst Amine Snoussi told The New Arab. “He’s breaking the confidence in electoral participation of the last 10 years. It’s something that will be very difficult to rebuild.”

"The 88.8% voter abstention was an informal referendum on the president's regime and his vision of remaking Tunisian politics, signalling overwhelming non-acceptance of his political trajectory"

The main opposition coalition known as the National Salvation Front urged President Saied to step down “immediately” after the mass voter boycott. Its head, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, called Saturday's poll a "fiasco" saying the head of state had “lost all legal legitimacy”.

The opposition alliance called for mass protests to demand new presidential elections. Abir Moussi of the Free Destourian Party and the party Afek Tounes also joined the calls for Saied’s resignation.

The vote was boycotted by most political parties, who accuse Mr Saied of an undemocratic coup. These include the moderate Islamist Ennahda movement, which had the majority in the previous parliament and is part of the Salvation Front.

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The polls were intended to replace an assembly that was suspended by Saied a year and a half ago and later dissolved as part of his "extraordinary measures" of 25 July 2021. A year later, he pushed through a new constitution, passed in July's referendum, which gives the head of state full executive authority and strips parliament of any real influence.

In September, he unilaterally issued an amended electoral law which considerably reduces the prominence of the political parties in parliament.

Voters were called to choose candidates individually, instead of selecting lists from parties, from the approved 1,055 - only 120 of them women - competing for the 161 seats in the House of Representatives.

The new voting system was met with confusion by many, who did not know who was running, with a number of electoral districts featuring one or no candidates at all.

A demonstration was held by the National Salvation Front (a Tunisian political group opposing President Kais Saied), on the occasion of the 59th anniversary of Evacuation Day in Tunis, Tunisia, on 15 October 2022. [Getty]

Even before the vote, many Tunisians conveyed disinterest in the election. Several others were unsure of the new electoral rules, finding it very difficult to choose from candidates, most of whom are unknowns.

“I’m not confident. It’s not clear how I will vote, it’s hard to pick a candidate,” Ibtisem Sliti, a 42-year-old housewife, had told TNA.

“I’ve no idea about the candidates, I’m not going to vote,” said Khaoula, 29, a tax clerk who gave only her first name.

A number of citizens voiced little hope in the incoming parliament. Some of them viewed the election as “pointless” since the new 161-member assembly would have limited powers.

"Kais Saied has created apathy toward politics. Tunisians have lost the sense that voting is important"

Apathy and disenchantment endured on election day, with potential voters expressing disillusionment with the political class but also decreased confidence in the president’s “governance”. Focussing on financial worries and living needs, a lot of Tunisians didn’t expect elections to improve their economic and social situation.

“I’m disappointed with every election. I don’t trust any of them anymore,” Fatma Ben Hmida, 37, with two small daughters, told The New Arab. She complained about high prices and food shortages. “Look at my grocery bag. I only bought a few items, everything is expensive,” the mother stressed. “Look at the country’s situation. Milk and sugar are missing, sometimes we can’t find fuel, it’s going to get worse”.

“The situation we live in is why I’m not voting today. Were’ not getting anything in return,” Radwan Ben Miftah, a 26-year-old unemployed, said before the vote. “With what an average job pays here, you can just buy food and nothing is left,” he added.

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“I don’t trust those working at the municipality who don’t do their job. Why should I trust those sitting in parliament?”

Following disastrous electoral participation rates, Saied’s legitimacy will come under further scrutiny as opposition figures become emboldened to question his continuing grip on power and Saturday’s vote itself.

The figure is the lowest recorded in all legislative polls since the 2011 revolution that ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, down from nearly 63% in 2014 and over 40% in 2019. It is also noticeably lower than the 30.5% in this summer’s constitutional referendum.

Kais Saied [Anadolu Agency/Getty]
Following disastrous electoral participation rates, Saied's legitimacy will come under further scrutiny. [Getty]

The meagre voter turnout is far from the anticipated validation the presidency was arguably seeking through the poll. On the contrary, it is an unequivocal show of scarce public support for his plans and it does not serve the purpose of obtaining credibility abroad either.

“An historically low turnout that reflects the Tunisian people’s disillusionment with the current political and economic situation and that suggests that the presidential roadmap announced in December 2021 has not succeeded in uniting the country,” the Carter Center, which has been engaged in Tunisia since 2011, said in a statement.

The 17 December election is the last stage of Saied’s political roadmap, but also one additional step in the consolidation of his hyper-presidential system.

"This parliament will have almost advisory power. The president will still be able to pass bills, take decisions as he wishes. It's a façade democracy, autocracy in practice"

“Saied’s system is an authoritarian ad hoc-racy. He’s deciding, alone, as he goes,” Monica Marks, professor of Middle East politics at New York University (NYU) Abu Dhabi, tweeted.

With a president tightening his grip on power, the next parliament won’t have any real authority, will unlikely bring any major changes, and won’t have the power to check and balance Saied. Under the new constitution, the legislature has no role in approving the government, holding it to account, or impeaching the president.

“This parliament will have almost advisory power. The president will still be able to pass bills, take decisions as he wishes,” Snoussi noted. “It’s a façade democracy, autocracy in practice”.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec