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Tunisia: Low local election turnout puts pressure on Saied

Tunisian opposition says Saied 'lost legitimacy' after meagre local election turnout
3 min read
26 December, 2023
Only eleven percent of Tunisian registered voters bothered to turn out for local elections held under the authoritarian rule of President Kais Saied
Only 11% of registered voters cast their ballot in the local elections in Tunisia [Getty]

The Tunisian opposition has said that President Kais Saied has lost legitimacy following a meagre turnout in  local elections.

On Sunday, December 24, Tunisia held its first local election under a new constitution previously described as "authoritarian" by rights groups. It was held in 2,155 electoral districts.

The country's Independent High Authority for Elections said the participation rate in the local council elections was only 11.66% of the 9 million registered voters.

“When the boycott rate is around 90%, this means an overwhelming popular rejection of the political project, and this requires the resignation of officials, and calling for early presidential elections,”  Munther Attia, a member of the Dignity Coalition opposition party, told The New Arab's sister site Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.

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The local elections were expected to be held on 17 December. However, President Kais Saied decided to push the election to a week later for "symbolic" reasons.

This 24th December marks the thirteenth anniversary of the death of young activists Muhammad Al-Amari and Shawqi Al-Haidari during the events of the Tunisian revolution that overthrew former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

This election was an important step for Tunisia’s political journey under President Saied, who sacked the prime minister and dismissed parliament in 2021, leading the country into authoritarianism after it had been hailed as the only success story of the Arab Spring.

It was the first step towards the appointment of regional and district councils as well as the establishment of an upper chamber of parliament after Saied had personally assumed extraordinary legislative powers.

However, the ambiguity around the local councils’ duties and responsibilities was a key factor behind the political parties' boycott and the voters’ indifference to the weekend’s elections.

Neither the constitution nor any laws specify the mandate and powers of these local councils, how they differ from the 350 municipal councils, or how the two will interact with each other. 

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During a press conference on Monday, the National Salvation Front, the biggest opposition group in the country, said President Saied’s insistence on "escaping forward" despite the population’s clear opposition “will lead to a crisis.”

The Front called for a national dialogue between all political forces "to resolve and avoid the crisis."

Even Saied’s supporters have admitted that the elections’ timing and circumstances were tone-deaf to the Tunisian people’s needs and demands as they grapple with a severe economic crisis.

"People today are standing in queues for milk and living materials and suffering from high prices, which is reflected in the weak turnout,” said Osama Oueidat, spokesman for the People’s Movement, a Tunisian party that supported Saied's rule by decree in 2021.

“The more people’s concerns are absent from the political project, the more abstention will occur,” added Oueidat.