Tunisians vote for neutered parliament in poll shunned by opposition

1. Tunisia
A Tunisian voter casts his ballot at a polling station in Tunis on December 17, 2022, during the parliamentary election. (Photo: AFP)
TUNIS — Uninspired Tunisians voted on Saturday for a parliament which will have virtually no power, marking the culmination of a power grab by President Kais Saied in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.اضافة اعلان

Opposition political groups in the North African country are boycotting the election. 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.

The ballot follows three weeks of barely noticeable campaigning, with few posters in the streets and no serious debate among a public preoccupied with day-to-day economic survival.

Last year, after months of political deadlock and economic crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Saied suspended parliament and sent military vehicles to surround it.

His assumption of executive power came more than a decade after a popular revolution unseated dictator Zine El 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 in the country of around 12 million people.

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 a comfortable district of Tunis.

The head of the electoral board, Farouk Bouasker, told state television that more than 270,000 people had cast votes by 10am. He called it “a significant number”.

But Noureddine Jouini, the head of a central Tunis polling station, sounded a different note.

“We knew that it wouldn’t be the normal turnout, but it’s even less than we predicted,” he said.

Boycotting ‘farce’
In the streets of Tunis, many expressed indifference about the vote.

“I’m not taking part in this farce,” said Ridha, a 59-year-old engineer who declined to give his full name.

“This president has disappointed us and he’s dragging us towards the abyss.”

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. Inflation is around 10 percent. Frequent shortages of milk, sugar and petrol are fuelling 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 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.

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

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

“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 Center.

It ‘will change nothing’
Almost all of Tunisia’s political parties, including Ennahdha, said they would boycott the vote.

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

Student Salima Bahri, 21, said she wasn’t voting because it “will change nothing”.

“All the candidates represent Kais Saied, not the Tunisian people,” she said.

But others were determined to take part.

“It’s a duty to vote, whatever the process is,” said lawyer Ali Bejaoui, 48, after casting his ballot.

The vote comes with Tunisia 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.

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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