Low turnout a message from Tunisian people to Saied: ‘Step aside’

Opposition parties say the only way forward for Tunisia is to get out of President Kais Saied’s system of one-man rule.

Tunisia's President Kais Saied casts his ballot at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Tunisia.
Tunisia's President Kais Saied casts his ballot at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Tunis on Saturday. [Tunisian Presidency/Handout via Reuters]

Tunis, Tunisia – A day after Tunisians largely shunned the parliamentary elections, the Democratic Current party, one of 12 political parties which boycotted the elections, is calling for President Kais Saeid to step down. Party leader Ghazi Chaouachi said the record low voter turnout is a clear message from the people to President Saied that “he no longer has a place in Tunisia and must accept defeat and step aside”.

Chaouachi’s voice is not alone. Immediately after the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) announced the final vote tally on Saturday, the opposition movement National Salvation Front held a press conference demanding the president step down.

The opposition front, which includes the Islamist Ennahdha party, also called for a new transitional process to begin, complete with a new national dialogue with the aim to move the country forward and get back to a better functioning state.

President Saeid has been accused of amassing all authority in his hands since his power grab last year, and under the new constitution adopted in the July referendum, parliament’s strength has been greatly reduced.

Even after election observers from Mourakiboun calculated voter turnout, although higher than the 8.8 percent that the election authority had previously announced, participation was shockingly low at just 11.1 percent, the lowest turnout in Tunisia and possibly a world-record low.

The US State Department said in a statement that these new elections “represent an essential initial step toward restoring the country’s democratic trajectory”. However, the State Department expressed concern that the “low voter turnout reinforces the need to further expand political participation”.

The legislative election process will continue into early 2023 with second runoff elections for those seats where there was no clear majority between competing candidates. Tunisians will have to vote again between two rival candidates. However, many seats had just one candidate who, regardless of votes, would be declared an outright winner. What remains a mystery is how seats with no candidates will be filled.

Oussama Aouidit of the nationalist party Hirak al Echaab (the People’s Movement), which has supported President Saied’s programme, said that his party is also disappointed but not surprised about the lower turnout.

He told Al Jazeera that they are seeing some preliminary successes with five party members going through to the second round of parliamentary elections, which is scheduled to be held at the end of January.

The new parliament under Saied’s new electoral law and constitution has only 161 seats compared with 217 in the 2019 elections. However, with candidates only allowed to run as individuals, creating parliamentary blocs and alliances to push through projects of law looks to be more difficult without a party structure to support them.

Hirak al Echaab previously held 15 seats in the parliament that Saied dissolved last March, and Aouidit believed that his party had the potential to become the largest party bloc in the new assembly.

“People are not seeing the fruits of the new political system, so that has not encouraged them to go out and vote. We saw watching the Morocco vs Croatia match was more important to them than politics,” Aouidit said.

“Government needs to impose exceptional measures and an emergency plan for Tunisia to exit from this [economic] crisis,” said Aouidit.

“If people see that the government is doing something to change their situation and can feel the benefits, they will feel more positive about going out to vote again.”

Tunisia has been going through its worst economic crisis with a rapidly rising cost of living, unemployment and drastic shortages of basic foodstuffs, such as milk, cooking oil and sugar.

The North African state has also been desperately seeking funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But a financial bill that President Saeid was expected to pass has been delayed, meaning the IMF will not be discussing Tunisia’s refinancing loan on Monday, putting Tunisia in an even more precarious situation.

Saeid’s move to reverse the democratic political process brought after the 2011 revolution initially received some support from the people in the hope that he would address the dire economic situation facing the country.

But about a year and a half later, the economic situation has gone from bad to worse, with high inflation and joblessness.

The second round of elections will be held towards the end of January and final election results could come as late as February. Across the political spectrum, voting fatigue and lack of trust mean voters have already completely disengaged.

Tunisian political analyst and author Amine Snoussi said, “Tunisians cannot stand another election if it is to be under Kais Saied’s conditions.” He said the lack of trust between the electorate and the election authorities is a great loss.

“One of the most important achievements of the revolution was people voting and trusting the results of the elections and accepting and proceeding in peace.”

He said the only way forward was to get out of Saied’s system and have political parties and the electorate involved.

Protesters are seen with a placard that reads 'get out dictator' in Tunis, Tunisia.
Demonstrators carry flags and placards during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied in front of the parliament, in Tunis, Tunisia, November 14, 2021 [Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters]

For the moment, Saied appears to be resolutely installed in the presidential palace, and there are no signs that he will step aside as the opposition demands.

Monica Marks, an assistant Professor of Arabic Cross Road Studies at New York University, said that Tunisia is worried that Saied will plough on regardless with his “vague Gaddafi-esque vision for reinventing Tunisia’s political wheel, that Tunisians did not ask for”.

Across the political spectrum, all agree that the most urgent need is for an economic rescue plan to address the problems that people are facing with rapidly inflated costs of living and lack of food.

An early draft of the new financial bill has provision for sharp rises in taxes intended to raise funds for the cash-strapped country. However, it is feared that this austerity budget will aggrieve Tunisians even more than they are already hurting.

Source: Al Jazeera