What happened at the second round of Tunisian parliamentary elections?

It was the second round of the parliamentary election in Tunisia on 29 January 2023. However, all polling stations across this small Maghreb country were nearly empty –  the turnout rate was only 11%. It was the world’s lowest turnout for a parliamentary election, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. This record-breaking turnout rate embodies the Tunisians’ frustration and anger against the current president, Kais Saied. 


Just two weeks before the election, thousands of Tunisians gathered on the central streets of the capital, chanting slogans like  “down with Saeid,” and “the people demand the fall of the regime”. It was the 12th anniversary of Tunisian uprising that sparked the Arab Spring revolutions. In 2011, a series of anti-government protests swept across the Arabic world. Violently oppressed by the authorities, most of the revolutionary movements failed. Yet, the Tunisians successfully toppled the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, making Tunisia the only lasting democracy after the Arab Spring. 


The current president, Kais Saied, was elected in 2019 after years of political crisis and terrorist attacks. In that election, voter turnout was 55% and Saied won more than 70% of the vote. As a low-profile law professor, he was considered incorruptible and civil-minded. The crowd celebrated his victory that night, but the joy proved to be an illusion when he carried out the constitutional coup in 2021. In July 2021, Saied declared a state of emergency. He suspended the elected parliament and dismissed the sitting prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, as a “total reset” from the political and economic turbulence. Then, he dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council, the national body which ensures judicial independence, and fired 57 judges in February 2022. He obtained full control over the judiciary. A month later, he issued a decree dissolving the parliament. At the same time, more and more political activists were jailed, and Tunisia’s press freedom index fell to 94th out of 180. 


While Tunisia is moving towards autocracy, its economy is stepping back. Between 2011 and 2019, the GDP growth of Tunisia shrank to 1.7%.


While Tunisia is moving towards autocracy, its economy is stepping back. Between 2011 and 2019, the GDP growth of Tunisia shrank to 1.7% on average between 2011 and 2019. The decline was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine. In December 2022, its inflation rate hit 10% and unemployment rate reached 15%. Many supermarkets and grocery stores have recently run out of staples like cooking oil and sugar, and people cannot afford them when they appear on the shelves. While the government has blamed speculators and the war in Ukraine, many economic experts regard the government’s inability to solve its own budget crisis and obtain long-sought loan from the International Monetary Fund as the root cause of the economic deterioration. Therefore, under Saied’s governance, people not only suffer from the fear of political oppression, but also struggle to survive. It is not what they imagined when Saied vowed to construct “a new Tunisia” after winning the presidential election in 2019.


Universal suffrage is a key part of democracy. However, the recent parliamentary election failed to bring hope to the Tunisians who desperately want changes. The new parliament is elected via the two-round system. In the first-round election in December 2022, 23 candidates secured seats outright, either because they ran unopposed or because they won more than half of the vote. 262 candidates proceeded to the second round. In march, the result of the election will be announced and a special election will be held to fill the seats of the seven constituencies with no candidate.  


The turnout rates for both rounds of the election were around 11%. The low turnout rate not only demonstrates people’s discontent towards the government in terms of the political and economic crisis, but also reflects the limitations of this election. First of all, the candidates of this election were not representative. In September 2022, Saied reduced the number of parliamentarians from 217 to 161. He also abandoned the candidate quotas which guarantee the representation for women and youth, so only 4% of candidates were under the age of 35 and only 11% were women in this election. Women and the youth were not represented on the ballots, so they were less interested in it. 


Voters were left with no choice but to vote for the pro-Saied candidates.


Besides, many anti-Saied parties boycotted this election. They included the Coordination of Social Democratic Parties, the Free Destourian Party and the National Salvation Front. Many officials in the popular pro-democracy parties could not join the election too. For example, in Ennahda, the biggest party in the previous parliament and the most vocal critic, many high-ranked officials were detained by the government after the dissolution of the parliament. Therefore, voters were left with no choice but to vote for the pro-Saied candidates. 


The supporters of Saied did not vote either. It was because Saied, who has no party and endorsed no candidates, was not on the ballot. His supporters believed that a strong presidency is more important than the parliamentary system and the checks and balance of power. Hence, they were not interested in voting. Furthermore, Saied did not actively promote the election. For instance, he prohibited the parties from funding the candidates, so they did little campaigning. The lack of resources also discouraged the political parties from participating in the election, so 10 constituencies had only one candidate. This lack of promotion and campaigning further weaken public’s interest in political participation. 


Although the result of the election cannot reflect the public’s political stance, it may give some hints of the future of Tunisia. On one hand, it suggests that a lot of people supported the boycott initiated by the opposition parties. The election brought the Tunisian opposition groups closer together, which is very crucial for the civil movement in the future. On the other hand, the election shows that the spectre of authoritarian rule will continue to loom over the nation. Pro-Saied parties like the 25th of July Movement and People’s Movement successfully secured seats after the first round and brought their candidates to the second round. Serving as Saied’s rubber stamp, the new parliament is likely to only execute his orders and fail to correct the flaws in policy. 



In the midst of authoritarian rule and economic hardship, not voting is the last resort of the Tunisians. They can only speak by being silent.


More importantly, the current constitution can help Saied further expand his power regardless of the composition of the new parliament. On 25 July 2022, the Tunisian government held a referendum on a new constitution. Only 27.5% of votes casted their ballots, and an overwhelming 92% of those who voted supported the new constitution. Under the new constitution, the president could unilaterally appoint the prime minister. The judiciary is reduced to an administrative function of the executive branch controlled by the president. In addition to the collapse of separation of power, the news constitution characterises Tunisia as a part of the Islamic community that shall work to achieve the objectives of pure Islam, obscuring the nationhood of Tunisia and civil rights of the Tunisians. Hence, regardless of the composition of the new parliament, Tunisia is moving away from democracy.


Can the fragmented opposition groups work coherently against the government? Will the Tunisians be too exhausted to bother politics when they are struggling to survive? Despite the uncertainty, it is definite that the government is facing a historically low trust and legitimacy. In the midst of authoritarian rule and economic hardship, not voting is the last resort of the Tunisians. They can only speak by being silent. 



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