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Elections shine spotlight on Tunisia’s troubled democracy

Turnout was just 11% in the first round of voting last month, according to the electoral commission

A Tunisian votes in the second round of the legislative elections in Tunis, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023.
A Tunisian votes in the second round of the legislative elections in Tunis, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023.Hassene Dridi (AP)

Tunisia’s president and its shaky, decade-long experiment with democracy are facing an important test Sunday as voters cast ballots in the second round of parliamentary elections.

Turnout was just 11% in the first round of voting last month, according to the electoral commission, as many disaffected Tunisians stayed away and the influential Islamist party Ennahdha and other opposition movements boycotted.

The runoff elections Sunday are being watched around the Arab world. They’re seen as a conclusive step in President Kais Saied’s push to consolidate power, tame Islamist rivals and win back lenders and investors needed to save the teetering economy.

Voters are choosing lawmakers to replace the last parliament, led by Ennahdha, which Saied suspended in 2021 and later disbanded. He then had the constitution rewritten to give more power to the president and less to the legislature.

Analysts note a growing crisis of confidence between citizens and the political class since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution unleashed Arab Spring uprisings across the region, and led Tunisians to create a new democratic political system once seen as a model.

At a voting station in the Tunis suburb of Soukra, people trickled in to mark their ballots and drop them in a plastic box.

In the first-round elections, 23 candidates secured seats outright in the 161-seat parliament, either because they ran unopposed or because they won more than 50% of the vote.

In Sunday’s runoff, voters are choosing among 262 candidates seeking to fill 131 seats. No candidates bothered to run in seven other constituencies; electoral officials say those seats will be filled in special elections at a later date.

At a Tunis food market ahead of Sunday’s vote, few people seemed to think a new parliament would solve their problems. Vendors struggled to sell their wares as shoppers lamented rising prices.

The opposition Work and Achievement Party was among those boycotting the elections, and held a meeting Sunday instead in their Tunis offices.

“Kaies Saied, when he wrote his constitution and ignored the committee he formed to write a new constitution, he wanted parliament to be a group of people in a closed place who had no influence on the situation of the country,” party chief Abdellatif Meki told The Associated Press.

“The next parliament has no control over the government. So for parliament members who make promises to the people, what is the mechanism by which they will keep their promises?” he asked.

Polls close at 6pm (1700 GMT), except in restive regions near the Algerian and Libyan borders where authorities are limiting voting hours for security reasons. The turnout rate – an important sign of the elections’ legitimacy – is expected to be announced Sunday evening, and the election results in the ensuing days.

Saied and his supporters argued that his overhaul of Tunisian politics was needed to end political deadlock seen as worsening economic and social crises. Unemployment tops 18%, the soaring budget deficit has led to shortages of staples, and the International Monetary Fund has frozen talks on a much-awaited new loan for the Tunisian government.

Saied’s popularity has sunk since his election in 2019, as evidenced by a video shared online of an impromptu visit he made to a cafe in Tunis amid campaigning earlier this month.

“God willing, we will provide you with everything you need ... as long as you have hope,” he told a group of young people.

One retorted, “We don’t have hope.”

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