UPDATE – Tunisian election had only 8.8% turnout, officials say

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By Tarek Amara

TUNIS, Dec 17 (Reuters) – Only 8.8% of Tunisian voters cast ballots in Saturday’s parliamentary elections, authorities announced, after most political parties boycotted the vote as a charade aimed at shoring up presidential power. 

The provisional turnout figure is lower than the 9.8% inflation rate – underscoring the economic pressures that have left many Tunisians disillusioned with politics nearly 12 years after a revolution that introduced democracy. 

The vote is part of a series of political changes made by President Kais Saied since he shut down the previous, more powerful, parliament in July 2021 and moved to rule by decree, amassing ever more power. 

Saied wrote a new constitution this year which diluted the parliament’s powers, making it subordinate to the presidency and with little influence over government or policy. 

The president has presented his political changes as necessary to save Tunisia from years of political paralysis and economic stagnation, and on Saturday morning urged voters to take part. 

However, few Tunisians that Reuters has spoken to over recent weeks said they were interested in the election, seeing the new parliament as irrelevant and the vote as a distraction from an economic crisis wrecking their lives. 

The economy shrank by more than 8% during the COVID-19 pandemic and the recovery has been slow. The government is seeking an IMF bailout that would require unpopular cuts in public spending. Meanwhile the crisis has caused food shortages.

The political parties that dominated the previous parliament, elected in 2019 with a turnout of about 40%, have accused Saied of a coup for his shutdown of parliament last year and say he has instituted one-man rule. 

Under Saied’s new electoral law, which he passed by decree, political parties would have had a far smaller role in the election even if they had taken part. Party affiliation was not included on ballot papers next to candidate names. 

The electoral commission head, Farouk Bouasker, who announced the turnout figure described it as “modest but not shameful”, ascribing it to the new voting system and a lack of paid election campaigning. 

(Reporting by Tarek Amara; writing by Angus McDowall; editing by Mark Heinrich and Nick Macfie)

EARLIER

Tunisia’s parliamentary election looked set for a very low turnout on Saturday as most political parties boycotted the poll, denouncing it as the culmination of President Kais Saied’s march to one-man rule.

Taking place 12 years to the day after Tunisian vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in an act of protest that sparked the Arab Spring, the election is for a parliament that will have little influence.

By 3 p.m. (1400 GMT) about 7.2% of eligible voters had cast their ballots, the electoral commission said. By comparison, 13.6% had voted by 3.30 p.m. on the day of a referendum in July that had a final turnout of only about 30%.

The polls are due to close at 6 p.m. (1700 GMT).

Tunisia’s previous parliament, which Saied shut down last year as he moved to rule by decree in measures his foes called a coup, was elected with a turnout of about 40%. 

Very low turnout for a largely powerless parliament likely dominated by independents lacking a unified agenda will give Saied’s critics ammunition to question the legitimacy of his political changes. 

That may become more of a challenge to the president as the authorities wrestle with the need to implement unpopular economic reforms such as subsidy cuts to secure an international bailout of state finances.

Reuters visited six polling stations around the capital, Tunis, that were all largely quiet. During a two-hour period split between three in the Ettadamon and Ettahir districts, only about 20 voters were seen casting their ballots. 

In the Omrane area of Tunis, cafes were crowded with young men watching the World Cup third place match between Morocco and Croatia.

“Am I crazy enough to leave the fun of football to go to elect a parliament that has no power?” said Yosri Jouini, describing the new parliament as merely decorative and calling the policy of political change a fraud.

There were more journalists than voters at the Rue de Marseille polling station in Tunis, which has been packed from early in the day in previous elections.

Faouzi Ayarai, who did vote there, was optimistic. “These elections are an opportunity to fix the bad situation left by others over the past years,” she said. 

BOYCOTT

Saied, a former law lecturer who was a political independent when elected president in 2019, has been gradually amassing power since his July 25, 2021 move against the parliament.

A new constitution, passed in July’s referendum, has defanged parliament and shifted power back to the presidential palace in Carthage from which Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali ruled with an iron fist before being ousted in 2011.

Nejib Chebbi, head of an anti-Saied coalition including the Islamist Ennahda party, a major force in the previous parliament, has labelled the election a “still-born farce”.

Saied has described it as part of a roadmap for ending the chaos and corruption he says afflicted Tunisia under the previous system.

Casting his vote with his wife, he urged Tunisians to do likewise. “It is your historic opportunity to regain your legitimate rights,” he said.

But I Watch, a non-governmental watchdog organisation formed after the 2011 revolution, said the new parliament had been “emptied of all powers”.

Al Bawsala, another NGO that has monitored the work of parliament since the revolution, has said it will halt its work at a legislature that it also thinks will be an instrument for the president.

The election is taking place against the backdrop of an economic crisis that is fuelling poverty, leading many Tunisians to attempt the perilous journey to Europe aboard smugglers’ boats. 

With the main parties absent, a total of 1,058 candidates – only 120 of them women – are running for 161 seats.

For 10 of those – seven in Tunisia and three decided by expatriate voters – there is just one candidate. A further seven of the seats decided by expatriate voters have no candidates running at all.

TIMELINE-Tunisia’s path from revolution to presidential power grab

Critics of Tunisian leader see little democracy in coming election

NEWSMAKER-Tunisia’s Saied unpicks ‘Arab spring’ democracy

As Tunisia votes, coastal town’s youth dream only of Europe

(Writing by Tom PerryEditing by Michael Perry, John Stonestreet and Helen Popper)

A Tunisian soldier carries a ballot box into a polling station a day ahead of the legislative elections in Tunis, Tunisia, . Tunisia will hold a legislative elections on 17 December in order to elect the 217 members of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People of Tunisia. A second round takes place in February or March 2023 in the constituencies on the ballot. EPA-EFE/MOHAMED MESSARA

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