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Tunisia's election labeled a sham by observers

December 18, 2022

Legislative elections took place on Saturday, but just 9% of voters turned out to elect a new parliament. Observers doubt there will be any major changes given the president's tightening grip on power.

A person sticks their finger in a pot of blue/purple dye, marking their index finger after voting
Turnout was not high for Saturday's legislative electionImage: Hasan Mrad/ZUMA/IMAGO

In the run-up to Saturday's election, the atmosphere on the streets of the Tunisian capital Tunis was anything but hopeful. 

"I will not participate in the poll because there is no credibility or transparency," Lotfi Belhadi, a civil servant in Tunis, told DW, adding that "the elections are a sham, and the parliament will be a body without powers."

English teacher Soumaya Salhi also said she would not vote. "My participation would normalize an illegal and undemocratic situation," she told DW. "What's the point of electing deputies who can neither make their own decisions nor have the power to hold the president and members of the government accountable?"  

Her words underline the deterioration of public opinion toward President Kais Saied and his political overhaul. In July 2021, the former law professor who had become president just two years earlier, suspended the elected parliament and dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi

In February, Saied suspended the country's Supreme Judicial Council, and a month later he dissolved the parliament completely. 

In July, voters approved a new constitution that extends presidential rights in Tunisia even further.

The country's electoral law was changed in September, and was in force for Saturday's election. There are now 161 electoral districts rather than 217 and for the first time, people voted for individual candidates rather than party lists.

Rising food prices increase hunger in Tunisia

However, public funding of campaigns was banned and each candidate had to provide 400 endorsements. Gender parity, introduced in 2016 as one of the key demands by the Arab revolution in 2011, was abolished. 

Moreover, international members of the press are banned from reporting on individual candidates. 

According to Tunisia's Independent High Authority for Elections, or IESE, five parties and around 1,500 independent, mostly rather unknown figures, were admitted to join the race. But 12 parties, including the influential Islamist Ennahda Party, decided to boycott the election.


In the run up of the Tunisian parliamentary elections, supporters of the Tunisian opposition groups protest in Tunis
Hundreds of Tunisians took to the streets in the run up of the parliamentary elections and called for President Kais Saied to leave office.Image: Zoubeir Souissi/REUTERS

"We cannot place our hands in the hands of a person who has destroyed state institutions," Ezzeddine Hazgui, a founding member of the opposition National Salvation Front coalition, which boycotted the election, told DW. "If the boycott was in a democratic system, then it would be wrong, but we are facing a coup," he said.

"For President Saied, it's irrelevant whether the [Tunisian] people recognize the elections or not," Sami Hamdi, managing director of the global risk and intelligence company International Interest in London, told DW. "There's nobody who believes that there is actually a democratic process happening in Tunisia."

Hamdi said the president was hoping to remove all remaining legitimacy from the parliament that he dissolved and to have the international community recognize the legislative elections. This could pave the way for the much-needed financial support from abroad, as the requirements for funding by the International Monetary Fund have a history of causing trouble between Saied and the powerful General Labor Union (UGTT) in Tunisia.  

Worsening economy

The elections come as the economic situation in Tunisia is particularly dire. According to the country's National Institute of Statistics, inflation is currently close to 10%, a record high. The COVID-19 pandemic and the consequences of Russia's war in Ukraine have led to massive increases in the price of wheat and other imports.

The Secretary General of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), Noureddine Taboubi reiterated his veto against the conditions of the IMF
The powerful union in Tunisia and their Secretary General Noureddine Taboubi reiterated their veto against cutting of public wages, a key demand by the IMFImage: Fethi Belaid/AFP

However, previous agreements with the IMF failed after the UGTT with its 1 million members on their side and its proven ability to paralyze the economy with strikes, didn't agree to the IMF's demand to cut public wages. 

In a new bid, Saied and the IMF reached another preliminary agreement in mid-October on a $1.9 billion (€1.79 billion) tranche. However, in turn, the UGTT reiterated at their annual assembly in early December that they will "not abide by secret agreements the government has with the [IMF], and the workers will stand up to it," according to a statement.

Moreover, this sum is about half of the $4 billion (€3.76 billion) the country initially requested and is not seen as enough to bail out the country's economy.

Worries and fear

"One of the things that people are waiting to see is if the election will be the opportunity for some really concerted economic planning and policy making," Anthony Dworkin, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW. "Unfortunately, there's nothing inside the record so far that suggests that Kais Saied is going to take the opportunity to do that."

Ahead of the upcoming legislative elections, Tunisian soldiers and workers load ballot boxes into military trucks to be distributed across the country.
Under the new electoral system, people voted for individuals rather than party lists for the first timeImage: Fethi Belaid/AFP

Instead, Dworkin said "what we've seen up to now is that he's built a system in an attempt to really close down the space for independent actors." There's concern, he said, that after the election the president would "move forward with pressure on other elements, "including civil society, freedom of speech and also on political parties." 

But Abdelmajid Tayeb, a retiree in Tunis, refuses to give up hope. He told DW that he was planning to cast his vote on Saturday. 

"We hope for the return of constitutional institutions, and for parliament to do its duty and introduce amendments to laws."

December 18, 2022: This article has been updated to reflect that the election has taken place, and to include statistics on participation

Edited by: Anne Thomas; Rob Mudge

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa