Tunisian election turnout sinks after Kais Saied’s power grab

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Tunisians have stayed away from the polls in record numbers in the first parliamentary election held in the country since a power grab by Kais Saied, the populist president, in July 2021.

Official figures announced by the electoral commission said just 8.8 per cent of registered voters cast a ballot in Saturday’s vote — the lowest turnout since the country rose up against the dictatorial rule of Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

The National Salvation Front, a political alliance that includes the moderate Islamist Nahda, the biggest party in previous parliaments, on Sunday called for Saied to step down and hold early presidential elections. It described the low turnout as an “earthquake” and said Saied had lost his legitimacy.

It also asked Tunisians to mobilise to overthrow what it described as Saied’s “coup”.

Farouk Bouasker, the head of the electoral commission described the turnout as “modest but not shameful”.

No clear winner will be announced as the vast majority of candidates stood as independents. Most political parties boycotted the poll.

The decision by most Tunisian voters to stay at home comes against a backdrop of economic crisis marked by soaring food prices and the postponement of an agreement on a loan from the IMF. On Sunday, the European Investment Bank agreed a €220mn loan for the country including €150mn for emergency food-security support.

Two months after Saied suspended parliament in July 2021, he started ruling by decree and set about redesigning the political system to give the president sweeping powers. A new charter shaped by Saied was adopted in July this year by referendum on a 30 per cent turnout. It reduces the powers of parliament and gives the president extensive authority over the government and the judiciary.

Until Saied’s power grab, Tunisia was seen as having made the region’s only successful democratic transition after the uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011. But when Saied moved to demolish the system, he was welcomed by a population weary of fractious political parties and weak coalition governments which had failed to stem economic decline and rising poverty.

The National Salvation Front had called for a boycott of the poll, but analysts said the low turnout was less a response to that than a sign of disengagement from politics. Monica Marks, assistant professor at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus, said Tunisians were “exhausted” by economic struggles and unfulfilled promises from politicians and had become “disengaged”.

“The World Cup game on Saturday between Morocco and Croatia attracted more interest [than the elections],” she said. “[Saied] is living on borrowed time, almost totally isolated from potential allies and failing to solve the bread and butter problems of Tunisians.”

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