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Tunisians vote for toothless parliament in poll shunned by opposition

Country's economic woes have gone from bad to worse

By AFP - Dec 17,2022 - Last updated at Dec 17,2022

A Tunisian voter casts her ballot at a polling station in Mnihla district, outside of Tunis on Saturday, during the parliamentary election (AFP photo)

TUNIS — Tunisians voted in a lacklustre election on Saturday for a parliament with virtually no power, the final pillar in President Kais Saied's political overhaul in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

Opposition political groups in the North African country have called for a boycott. They say the poll is part of a "coup" against the only democracy to have emerged from the 2011 wave of uprisings across the region.

At a polling booth in central Tunis as the polls opened, around 20 journalists looked on as two voters waited to cast their ballots.

The election follows three weeks of barely noticeable campaigning, with few posters in the streets and no serious debate among a public largely preoccupied with pressing financial concerns.

Last year, after months of political deadlock and economic crisis exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, Saied suspended parliament and sent military vehicles to surround it in a dramatic power grab more than a decade after a popular revolution unseated dictator Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali.

The spark for that revolt came exactly 12 years before this election, on December 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself to death to protest police harassment and unemployment.

Saied, a former law professor, has pushed through a new constitution giving the presidency almost unrestrained powers and laying the ground for a 161-seat rubber-stamp legislature.

On Saturday, he told voters that the country was "breaking with those who destroyed the country".

"Those who are elected today should remember that they are being watched by their voters, and that if they're not up to the job their mandate will be taken away," he said in front of a polling station in Ennasr, a comfortable district of Tunis.




Saied's moves against an unpopular political system were initially supported by many Tunisians tired of the messy and corrupt democratic system in the post-Ben Ali era.

But almost a year and half on, the country's economic woes have gone from bad to worse, with 10 per cent inflation. Frequent shortages of milk, sugar and petrol fuel a growing wave of emigration.

The previous legislature had far-reaching powers in the mixed presidential-parliamentary system enshrined in Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution.

But candidates in Saturday’s poll are standing as individuals under a system that neuters political parties including Saied’s nemesis, the once powerful Islamist-leaning Ennahdha Party.

The new chamber “won’t be able to appoint a government or censure it, except under draconian conditions that are almost impossible to meet”, said political scientist Hamadi Redissi.

Another analyst, Hamza Meddeb, told AFP the election was a “non-event” and predicted that few Tunisians would vote.

“This election is a formality to complete the political system imposed by Kais Saied and concentrate power in his hands,” said Meddeb, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre.

Meddeb added that most of the candidates are “political newcomers” unable to mobilise a public struggling with “extremely difficult” economic conditions.

The non-governmental Tunisian Observatory for Democratic Transition said around half the candidates are either teachers or mid-level civil servants.

In contrast with the previous parliament where gender equality was mandatory, women represent less than 15 per cent of all candidates for the new legislature, according to the election board’s official list.


IMF bailout ‘easier’ 


Almost all of Tunisia’s political parties, including Ennahdha, have said they will boycott the vote.

The powerful UGTT trade union federation has called the poll meaningless.

Al Bawsala, a civil society group that has monitored Tunisia’s parliamentary politics since 2014, said it would discontinue that role because the new “puppet parliament” would simply “back the president’s programme”.

The vote would “serve primarily as a tool for President Kais Saied to legitimise his grip on power”, said Hamish Kinnear, of risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft.

Tunisia is in the final stages of negotiating a nearly $2 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to rescue its crisis-hit public finances.

Kinnear said the vote meant “securing financial assistance... will be easier now that greater political predictability is returning, even if the democratic legitimacy of the [constitutional] referendum and upcoming legislative elections is weak”.

The IMF’s top committee was set to approve next week the country’s fourth loan in 10 years, but has postponed its decision until early January at the request of the Tunisian government, a source close to the talks told AFP.

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