©Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Tunisian President Kais Saied arrives to meet with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (not pictured) during the US-Africa Leaders Summit at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, United States, on December 14, 2022. Mandel Ng
By Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall
TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia’s general election on Saturday looked like a very low turnout as most political parties boycotted the election, denouncing it as the culmination of President Kais Saied’s march to one-man rule.
Exactly 12 years to the day after Tunisian greengrocer Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in a protest that sparked the Arab Spring, elections are taking place for a parliament that will have little influence.
As of 3 p.m. (1400 GMT), about 7.2% of eligible voters had cast their ballots, the Electoral Commission said. For comparison: On the day of a referendum in July, in which only around 30% of the voters took part in the end, 13.6% had cast their vote by 3.30 p.m.
Polling stations will close at 6 p.m. (1700 GMT).
Tunisia’s previous parliament, which Saied shut down last year when he came to power by decree in what his opponents called a coup, was elected with a turnout of about 40 percent.
The very low turnout for a largely powerless parliament likely to be dominated by independents who lack a coherent agenda will provide Saied’s critics with ammunition to question the legitimacy of his policy changes.
This could become more of a challenge for the president as authorities wrestle with the need to implement unpopular economic reforms, such as subsidy cuts, to ensure an international bailout of government finances.
Reuters visited six polling stations in the capital Tunis, all of which were largely quiet. Only about 20 voters were seen casting their votes over a two-hour period split between three in Ettadamon and Ettahir districts.
In the Omrane district of Tunis, cafes were packed with young men watching the World Cup third-place match between Morocco and Croatia.
“Am I crazy enough to give up the fun of football to elect a parliament that has no power?” said Yosri Jouini, who called the new parliament merely decorative and called the policy of political change a fraud.
There were more journalists than voters at the polling station on rue de Marseille in Tunis, which was packed early in the day in previous elections.
Faouzi Ayarai, who voted there, was optimistic. “These elections are an opportunity to remedy the bad situation that others have left behind in recent years,” she said.
Saied, a former law lecturer who was politically independent when he was elected president in 2019, has gradually risen to power since his July 25, 2021 foray into Parliament.
A new constitution passed in July’s referendum has desecrated parliament, shifting power back to the presidential palace in Carthage, from where Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali ruled with an iron fist before being ousted in 2011.
Nejib Chebbi, leader of an anti-Saied coalition which includes the Islamist Ennahda party, a key force in the previous parliament, has called the election a “stillborn farce”.
Saied has described it as part of a roadmap to end the chaos and corruption he says plagued Tunisia under the previous system.
He cast his vote with his wife and urged Tunisians to do the same. “It is your historic opportunity to regain your legitimate rights,” he said.
But I Watch, a non-governmental watchdog set up after the 2011 revolution, said the new parliament was “emptied of all powers”.
Al Bawsala, another NGO that has overseen the work of Parliament since the revolution, has announced it will stop working at a legislature that it also believes will be an instrument for the president.
The election comes amid an economic crisis that is fueling poverty and prompting many Tunisians to attempt the perilous journey to Europe aboard smugglers’ boats.
Without the major parties, there are a total of 1,058 candidates – of whom only 120 are women – for the 161 seats.
For 10 of them – seven in Tunisia and three decided by foreign voters – there is only one candidate. Another seven of the seats decided by foreign voters have no candidates at all.