Tunisia has all the makings of a revolution in the making, with voter turnout lower than even skeptics predicted, with now an entire nation looking at its president and asking: what now?
Only 8.8% of Tunisian voters cast ballots in parliamentary elections held on December 17th, authorities announced, as most political parties boycotted the vote.
The election comes 12 years to the day after vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in an act of protest that sparked the “Arab spring” upheaval and toppled the regime of Tunisia’s long-time ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
But the democratic transition hit an impasse in recent years as the legislative and executive branches of power collided and successive governments failed to deliver economic results. The process was thrown into further doubt by political changes made by Saied after he shut down the previous, more powerful but contentious parliament, in July 2021, and moved to rule by decree, amassing ever more power.
His moves, which initially received a wide welcome by the population, soon proved to be controversial and offered no solutions to struggling Tunisians.
Saied, a former law lecturer who was a political independent when elected president in 2019, wrote a new constitution this year diluting parliament’s powers to make it subordinate to the presidency with little sway over government.
The president has presented his changes as necessary to save Tunisia from years of political paralysis, corruption and economic stagnation, and on Saturday morning he urged voters to take part in the election.
However, most Tunisians did not seem interested in the ballot seeing the vote as a distraction from an economic crisis wrecking their lives.
After turnout results were announced, some of the opposition parties called on Saied to step down and hold early presidential elections.
Questions over legitimacy may become a problem for the president as his government wrestles with implementing unpopular economic reforms such as subsidy cuts to secure an international bailout of state finances.
The economy shrank by more than 8% during the COVID-19 pandemic and the recovery has been slow. Some basic foodstuffs and medicines have disappeared from shelves and ever more Tunisians are braving the dangers of an illicit Mediterranean crossing to seek a new life in Europe.
The political parties that dominated the previous parliament, elected in 2019 with a turnout of about 40%, have been mostly absent from the ballot.
Under Saied’s new electoral law, which he passed by decree, party affiliation was not included on ballot papers next to candidates’ 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.
At one polling station, voter Faouzi Ayarai had said she was optimistic about the new parliament. “These elections are an opportunity to fix the bad situation left by others over the past years,” she said.
But I Watch, a non-governmental watchdog, said the new parliament had been “emptied of all powers”.
With the main parties absent, a total of 1,055 candidates, only 120 of them women, were running for 161 seats.
Figures show that women and young voters were among the segments of the population which most shunned the vote.
For 10 of electoral districts, seven in Tunisia and three decided by expatriate voters, there was just one candidate. A further seven of the seats decided by expatriate voters had no candidates running at all.