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Why was there such a low turnout in Tunisia’s election?

December 22, 2022 at 2:02 pm

People vote in early general elections at Bou Mhel polling station in Ben Arous, Tunisia on December 17, 2022 [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]

The parliamentary election was finally held in Tunisia at the weekend as the final stage of establishing the institutions of the new political system overseen by President Kais Saied. The process began with the drafting of a new constitution and a referendum to adopt it. The election will produce the new House of Representatives that will assume the “legislative function” as the 2022 constitution calls it.

However, there was an unprecedented low voter turnout in the election, which raises a number of questions. No more than nine per cent of those registered to vote actually did so, which throws the spotlight on the current political authority and its supporters.

Since July 2021, when Saied stopped the democratic path and abolished the 2014 constitution, the justification has always been that Tunisia was living under a democratic system that was a formality and which had lost its popular legitimacy. It was said to be a system which no longer responded to the aspirations of the people, so what was needed was for it to be rebuilt in such a way as to restore the status of the state, the seriousness of politics and the influence of public opinion.

This justification was mere words that had no effect on reality. It was an attempt to build a hybrid authoritarian system that takes into account some of the democratic gains that people are accustomed to, such as party pluralism and relative freedom of expression while, at the same time, making legal amendments to the structure of the political system. These included a monopoly on power for the president combining legislative and executive powers and overlooking the legislature, giving him sole authority to draft laws and the new constitution.

READ: Tunisia party calls on Saied to vacate presidency

Last Saturday’s election was a test of the public’s acceptance of these changes in light of an electoral law that was designed to exclude political parties and weaken their influence. It also abolished public funding for candidates, under the pretext of fighting the influence of “political money”. These steps were supposed to be welcomed by the Tunisian people, but the resultant boycott of the ballot boxes exposed an acute political crisis that cannot be overlooked or swept aside by the excuse of public indifference. The low turnout for the elections dealt a blow to political populism, given

'Big failure' as Tunisia sees only 9% voter turnout - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

‘Big failure’ as Tunisia sees only 9% voter turnout – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

that it claimed that this is what the people want, and that all of Saied’s “exceptional” measures to cancel the democratic path were taken in the name of the people in response to their wishes.

This refusal to participate in the charade of a general election can only be explained by the fact that we have witnessed a passive rebellion because the political process is regarded as illegitimate and unworthy of support. The result was expected by every objective observer, and it exposed the failure of the government under Saied as crises continue to affect daily life in Tunisia. The queues for fuel and the absence of basic foodstuffs on the shelves are something that Tunisians have not experienced before, even during the uprisings.

Those in charge of the government believed that the general public’s criticism of the political parties and resentment of the behaviour of some civil society organisations, such as the Tunisian General Labour Union and the Union of Customs Officers, would make people accept a further decline in the standard of living. This is an illusion, because the government does not study the mood of the people, and exercises power through laws issued by decrees. No account is taken of the political aspects of different sectors of society.

Moreover, Kais Saied is convinced that he has an absolute popular consensus. This perception is based on the result of the second round of the presidential election that brought him to power without taking into account the circumstances that led to that result and the nature of his political rival. He didn’t consider the fact that once you are in a position of authority your popularity tends to weaken, even if you are successful. The delusion of a consensus led Saied to overlook the fact such a political assessment is contrary to the political nature of the people, and the consequences of years of party pluralism, ideological diversity and public criticism of the authorities. This allows citizens to be able to differentiate between right and wrong, and judge the performance of the ruler.

READ: Tunisia party calls on Saied to vacate presidency

Given the spread of knowledge and the instantaneous transmission of information, ideas and facts on social media, it was only natural for the new regime to suffer a decline in its legitimacy and a blockage in its channels of communication with the people. Ultimately, this led to boycott of the election last weekend.

Now the question is how will the existing political authority react, and how will it deal with the tense popular mood? The response requires wisdom, good performance and the kind of rationality that Tunisia needs at this critical stage in its history.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 21 December 2022

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.