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Record Low Turnout for Tunisia's Latest Parliamentary Elections

posted on: Dec 21, 2022

By: Norah Soufraji/ Arab America Contributing Writer

Source: Middle East Institute

Democracy Eroding?

Tunisia is widely known as the birthplace of the Arab Spring and has been seen as a success story in maintaining democracy while other Arab neighbors have fallen into instability, war, and back into the hands of autocratic regimes. However, recent political developments have some experts fearing that democracy is at risk and beginning to erode. The latest parliamentary elections, which were held on Saturday the 17th, yielded a shockingly low turnout of a mere 8.8 % of the population. This low turnout appears to suggest Tunisians are disillusioned with their leadership. According to observers, polling centers had more media, poll workers, and security than actual voters. 

Boycotts & Instability

President Kais Saied casts his vote December 17, 2022/ Source: Reuters

Tunisia’s recent political uncertainty has loomed over the past several months as President Kais Saied suspended parliament, introduced a new constitution, and began redrawing the nation’s political map. This was largely received with outrage by Saied’s main opposition called the “Salvation Front”, which chose to boycott the election. According to the president of the Salvation Front Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, President Saied “has lost all legitimacy”. Chebbi also went on to call the recent election a “fiasco”. According to human rights and youth advocates, new regulations will also prove unfavorable to women candidates due to the high thresholds for nominations and the increased difficulties in acquiring funding. 

By introducing a new constitution, President Saied made a point to greatly reduce the authority of Tunisia’s political parties which he deemed enemies of the people. This is particularly the case with the “Ennahda” movement which has been active and popular since the Arab Spring protests in 2011. Additionally, Tunisia’s new electoral laws, which were passed in a controversial referendum, have created an entirely new system for elections where candidates run individually rather than on party lists. The new law also reduced the number of parliament members from 217 to 161. Some voters were shocked to find only one candidate in their constituency. Other voters did not recognize any of the candidates running and instead submitted blank ballots.

Farouk Bousaker, president of the Independent High Authority of Elections (ISIE), made a statement in support of President Saied and explained that the low voter turnout was due to “the absence of corrupt political money”  and called the elections “pure and legitimate”.

Due to the actions of President Saied, power in Tunisia is shifting towards the executive branch thanks to the new constitutional referendum that further entrenches his powers. However, given the mass boycott of the elections and dismal turnout, it appears that Tunisians are exercising silent powers of their own by choosing to not participate and wait and see what the president will do next. Regardless, there appears to be a distinct disconnect between the president’s reforms and the concerns that everyday Tunisians are dealing with such as a struggling economy, high inflation, and rising food prices.

12th Year Anniversary of the Arab Spring

Tunisian protesters hold up a photograph of Mohamed Bouazizi in January 2011/ Source: Salah Habibi AP Photo Via Aljazeera

The current political landscape and silent majority opting out of the elections is a far cry from the events of twelve years ago which sparked the beginning of the Arab Spring. In fact, the recent elections occurred on the exact anniversary of an act of protest in the streets of Tunis that shocked the world. On December 17, 2011 Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor, set himself on fire because of the economic situation in the country. Bouazizi’s tragic act of desperation and subsequent death prompted nationwide protests in Tunisia, primarily led by young people. These protests would eventually go on to oust Tunisia’s then-dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and inspire various protests throughout the Arab world. 

On the anniversary of Tunisians rising up in protest to resist tyranny twelve years ago, recent steps towards concentrated executive power likely do not bode well for the strength and health of Tunisia’s democracy. 

The dismal election turnout proves that Tunisians, particularly the youth, do not hold much faith in their elected government. For this election, only 21 candidates were able to secure victory. A second round run-off election will be held on January 20th. Out of a total of 1,058 candidates, of which only 120 are women, all are competing for a mere 161 seats. 

Protests and increased unrest are expected in the coming weeks. However, it is yet unclear to what extent Tunisians can curb the derailed and increasingly troubled political climate their country is currently facing. 

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