Record Low Election Turnout in Tunisia as Saied’s Former Backers Stay Home

Volunteers with the High Independent Electoral Body (ISIE) count votes in Menzah, Tunis, Tunisia on Dec. 17, 2022. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

Elections for a new parliament on Saturday, December 17 saw the lowest turnout ever recorded in a Tunisian election, with officials putting the number at 8.8 percent as of 18:00, when many polling stations across the country had already closed. The low numbers reflect an intensifying disillusionment with formal politics, even among those who previously expressed hope that President Kais Saied would revamp the political system.

“Parliament’s participation will only be a sham, since Kais Saied possesses all powers,” Lokman Soua, a 24-year-old primary teacher who voted for Saied in 2019, told Meshkal. Soua explained that while he did vote in Saturday’s election, he did so only because he knows the candidate personally and trusts them.

A man dips his finger in ink after voting at a polling center in the Lafayette neighborhood of Tunis on Dec. 17, 2022. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

But Soua was one of the few, especially among young people who bothered to vote on Saturday. According to the High Independent Electoral Body (ISIE), of the 803,638 Tunisians who voted by Saturday evening, only 5.8 percent were under 25, or just under 5,000 people.

At a polling station in the Lafayette area of downtown Tunis on Saturday, election observer Walid Hedhli, a local observer with the Youth Without Borders association said “Turnout…is very low and does not bode well.”

“I observed at two polling stations and found no other observers at all, and the participation of young adults was almost nonexistent,” he told Meshkal.

An election observer at a polling center in the Lafayette neighborhood of Tunis on Dec. 17, 2022. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

President’s Former Supporters Stay Home

Most Tunisians, including those who previously supported Saied, chose to not vote on Saturday.

“Simply, I would not participate in an illegitimate political path,” said Yosra Oueslati, a 28-year-old former member of the Democratic Current party and an activist who voted for Kais Saied in 2019 and participated in his political campaign.

A voter checks in to vote at a polling center in the Lafayette neighborhood of Tunis on Dec. 17, 2022. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

Aya Zitouni said she voted for Saied in the second round of the presidential elections in 2019—a runoff between Saied and Nabil Karoui—because Saied “was the only choice left with Karoui. Either I vote for the corrupt politician or for the professor of constitutional law who everyone respected and believed in, including myself.”

When Saied suspended Parliament on July 25, 2021 and assumed greater executive powers, Zitouni said she, “like everyone else” supported Saied even more. But she sees that support as a problem now.

“We supported him because he hated Ennahdha, and that was the problem. We just kept supporting him because we also hated Ennahdha,” Zitouni said, adding that she did not vote on Saturday.

“I voted for Kais Saied back in 2019 because I believed he was an honest man, and I still do, but he’s not a good manager. He has no idea how to manage people. Our country is so soaked in corruption that I believe we’ll never be saved,” said Sonya Kechiche, a 44-year-old accountant. “I voted for him before, but my family and I are boycotting him now,” she added, noting that they did not vote on Saturday.

A pro-Kais Saied rally in downtown Tunis in November 2021. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

Soua, the schoolteacher, is skeptical that boycotting the parliamentary elections will be effective at stopping Saied’s political project.

“We boycotted the [online] consultation [on constitutional changes] and reached no results. We boycotted the [July 25, 2022 constitutional] referendum, yet the new constitution was published. In all cases, he [Saied] will only do what he thinks is right and not what we vote for,” Soua said.

Although Soua did cast a ballot on Saturday, he said he’s very worried about the future of Tunisia and his freedom to express his opinion.

“We are no longer talking about a democratic path. As a young adult, out of fear of imprisonment, I started avoiding expressing my thoughts and being as active as I used to. The general political mood does not bode well and is not encouraging,” he said.

Watchdog Groups Boycotts new Parliament

The transparency watchdog group Al Bawsala tracked previous parliaments through their Marsad Majles project, which was often the only source publishing the votes and attendance of Members of Parliament in committee and full parliament sessions. But on December 13, days before the election, Al Bawsala released a statement saying they would “boycott” the next assembly to reject “the legitimacy of a dummy structure designed only to support the president’s objectives and paint a veneer on the pillars of his new political building in a false spirit of fraudulent participatory democracy.”

Bawsala’s statement detailed the decisions Saied has taken to reshape the governing system since July 25, 2021, which they say have concentrated power in the executive branch, excluded other actors, and been undemocratic.

“We didn’t choose to boycott, we were pushed to by the committed violations,” Haythem Benzid, responsible for Al Bawsala’s ‘governance’ programs told Meshkal. “For us, the electoral law does not possess the minimum level of guarantees that constitutes a parliament capable of performing its role as a legislative institution.”

Benzid explained that because the new constitution restricts the parliament’s role in actually setting the legislative agenda and will instead work on approving laws issued by the executive branch, there isn’t enough of a justification for Bawsala to work on keeping Parliament transparent.

“The issue of transparency will not be the problem in this parliament. The first issue they will face is rather the weakness of performing their legislative duties,” Benzid said. “We, as the organization of Bawsala, believe that there will be no point in monitoring the legislative process within Parliament, but rather we will only continue to play our role in monitoring Tunisian legislation…reserving our right to ring the alarm bell in the case of a law or bill that may affect the economic, social, or individual rights of Tunisian citizens.”

Fadil Aliriza contributed to this report.


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