Tunisia faces election deadlock as citizens abroad go to polls

Vote for new parliament takes place on Saturday

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The countdown to Tunisia’s legislative elections is under way, with only one day to go before Tunisians abroad head to the polls to cast their ballots for their future representatives in parliament.

However, those familiar with electoral processes in the country over the past decade say there is something different about these elections.

With the majority of political parties boycotting Saturday's vote and the absence of the usual campaigning around the country, observers are already predicting that the elections will be a failure.

Electoral commission allegations

“The credibility of the electoral commission is diminished. I would guess that the participation rate in this election would be very low compared to other elections we had,” Amine Ghali, a political analyst and director of Kawakibi Democracy Transition Centre, told The National.

The electoral commission is widely viewed as lacking impartiality and has been one of the most contentious subjects in the elections.

“Its members have been hand-picked by the president and it is not at the level of credibility and professionalism as the previous election commissions,” Mr Ghali said.

According to Mr Ghali, the credibility issue of the commission stems from President Kais Saied's efforts to consolidate power since his takeover of all branches of the government on July 25, 2021.

The unilateral drafting of a constitution — that was later passed through a controversial referendum — as well as the new electoral law, is what lead the major political actors in the country to reject the elections as another procedure designed to cement one-man rule.

Dim prospects for an effective parliament

On July 25, 2021, Tunisians took to the streets to mark the anniversary of the republic, demanding an end to a parliament that was seen as dysfunctional, corrupt and violent.

“People had a lot of hope and wanted to put an end to a corrupt parliament and the corrupt alliances within it, but I don’t see how we are going to correct that when Kais Saied’s narrative is based on hate, lies, rumours, the division of Tunisians and questioning their national allegiance,” said Lawyers Without Borders co-ordinator Nawres Douzi.

“I believe the next parliament is going to be more violent and more corrupt than the one we had.”

The lack of hope of change is a sentiment shared by many Tunisians. Most convey distrust in the political elite, with an overwhelming state of “political fatigue”.

Tunisia’s new constitution can already tell us a lot about what we should expect of the next parliament, said Mr Ghali: “It would be very weak and only confirming the choices of the president.”

Devolved power or more of the same?

Through his new electoral system, Mr Saied has claimed to seek empowerment for marginalised interior regions, pledging sweeping devolution of power.

The idea has been the subject of popular demands for years and is widely seen as legitimate, according to Ms Douzi. However, implementation of political decentralisation under Mr Saied would risk being tied to his centralisation of powers, Ms Douzi says.

“It’s not decentralisation of powers, it’s a centralisation of powers in the hands of the president,” she says.

According to Ms Douzi, the parliament’s main duty is not on display in the open sessions broadcast live to the public. Instead, more important work is done by parliamentary commissions, where the most important decisions regarding policies necessary to guide the country are discussed.

However, with the current trajectory, the coming parliament would lack a national vision, she says.

Systemic problems

With an economic crisis affecting the daily lives of citizens, critics doubt that the election of a new parliament will bring the solutions that they need.

“We’ve lived through promises that were never delivered. Solutions need to be more comprehensive, participatory and within a global vision,” Mr Ghali said.

With no detailed guarantees for accountability and equal representation provided by the current electoral law, Ms Douzi describes the current process as having “dim prospects, incapable of providing a better alternative for Tunisians”,

“The current political system somehow abolished the very foundation of democracy,” Ms Douzi said.

Mr Ghali says only a drastic change of the entire system is capable of taking the country out of its current stalemate.

“The solution will not come from the upcoming parliament and the system of decision-making as it is today,” he said. “The current system is a deadlock that would not lead to any improvements.”

Updated: December 14, 2022, 3:39 AM