Presidential run-off in Tunisia, but will anyone vote?

Tunisia’s parliamentary elections on 6 October – the penultimate poll before Sunday’s presidential run-off – delivered a very fragmented result without a clear majority. Whoever emerges as victor will face a tough task, fighting widespread voter fatigue and disillusionment with the political establishment. By Alessandra Bajec

By Alessandra Bajec

On 6 October, just a few weeks after the presidential primary – brought forward following the death of Beji Caid Essebsi – Tunisians voted in a new legislative body. It was their third parliamentary election since the 2011 uprising that ousted long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The poll foreshadowed the upcoming presidential run-off between two "outsiders", constitutional law professor Kais Saied and media mogul Nabil Karoui, the latter accused of tax evasion and money laundering.

More than 1,500 lists and 15,000 candidates were running for the 217-seat assembly. Tunisia’s parliament chooses the prime minister, who in turn forms a government that sets most domestic policy. With much public attention going to the initial round of presidential elections, held on 15 September, citizens went to the ballot indifferent, undecided or little aware of the importance of electing a new parliament.

"Since Essebsi passed away, Tunisians have been focussed on the presidential elections, forgetting the legislative ones – which are crucial," said 29-year-old Ajer in El Mourouj, a commune in the southern suburbs of Tunis, on an election day that came and went without much enthusiasm.

Participation low compared with 2014

Voter apathy was visible across the country. Two hours before voting stations closed at 6pm, the electoral commission gave one final push for voters to participate, raising the total turnout from 23.49% to 41.3% by the time polls closed. That proved a little lower than the 45% reported in the first presidential round, but well under the over 60% achieved in the 2014 legislative election, according to the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE).

Voters trickle into a polling station in El Mourouj, outside Tunis (photo: Alessandra Bajec)
An opportunity to vent their frustration: distrust with the political establishment has made Tunisians uninterested in or hesitant about voting. "The country is going badly, the economy is bad. Our vote was anti-system this time," said a retired man named Boubaker. His wife Asma added: "We voted for an independent candidate. We hope he will bring security, improve the economic situation and boost our purchasing power"

The weak participation in Sunday’s vote was undoubtedly the result of the tight electoral schedule, the lack of a voting awareness campaign and – most importantly – general exasperation with the political elite. Polling stations within the capital and in the provinces recorded a modest trickle of voters during the first half of the day.

"People have been rushed through this electoral race. They haven’t had enough time to review the candidates’ programmes and make their choice," Saied, 40, noted inside a polling station in El Mourouj, accompanied by his wife Rabia and two children.

Several people lamented the lack of clarity and differentiation between electoral programmes. Seifeddine Ben Tili, coordinator of Tunisian NGO Al Bawsala, a parliamentary watchdog, observed: "Although the majority of the competing lists centred their discourse around the socio-economic dossier, there was no real action plan set out in their programmes."Anti-system sentiment

The elevated abstention rate of 58.6%, almost twice more than that of the last legislative polls in 2014, also indicated a rejection of the participating parties. Eight years into the Arab Spring, many Tunisians are frustrated with traditional political parties' failure to do something about high unemployment, rising costs of living and poor public service.

Many voters approached the legislative poll as another opportunity to vent their rejection of the ruling system, as seen in the first round of the presidential election. "The distrust with the political establishment has made people uninterested or hesitant about voting," Saied continued.

"The country is going badly, the economy is bad. Our vote was anti-system this time," a retired man named Boubaker, aged 65, voiced outside a polling place in central Tunis. Standing next to him and their two kids is his wife Asma, 50, a civil servant, said: "We voted for an independent candidate. We hope he will bring security, improve the economic situation and boost our purchasing power."

"Tunisians have enough of politicians. For them, they’re all liars and thieves," Amine Seifi, a political observer, opined. "They don’t care what the next government will look like, or if it will be stable. It won’t change anything for the average citizen."

Social and economic woes in the North African state have translated into declining trust in political institutions, as highlighted by Al Bawsala’s Ben Tili. Results from the Arab Barometer 2016 survey revealed that just 35% trust the government to a medium to great extent, 72% of Tunisians have little or no trust in parliament, and confidence in political parties is the lowest at 12%.

Political mosaic, complex talks

Unsurprisingly, a split chamber emerged from Sunday’s legislative contest amidst great uncertainty and public discontent with party politics. The Muslim Ennahda movement, which previously held the most seats in parliament, topped the election with 52 seats, followed closely by Nabil Karoui’s newly founded party Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia) with 38 seats.

Behind the two leading parties are smaller coalitions and parties including the Democratic Current (22 seats), the ultra-conservative and populist Dignity Coalition (21 seats), the Free Destourian party (PDL) of anti-Islamist Abir Moussi (17 seats), the leftist, pan-Arabist, Popular Movement (16 seats) and Youssef Chahed’s Tahya Tounes secular party (14 seats).

The religious conservative party, a relative winner in the race, saw a noticeable drop in its popularity since the last election in 2014 when it gained 69 seats. Despite that, it remains the strongest party proving to be the country’s only stable, unified political entity. It campaigned against corruption and against Nabil Karoui.

Qalb Tounes, whose leader Karoui was released from pre-trial detention on Wednesday and is also a candidate in Sunday's presidential election, made its entry into parliament, though it has not achieved its goal of becoming the biggest party. Its campaign focused on promises to fight poverty.

Reflecting the anti-system vote expressed by the Tunisian public in the presidential race, the country’s established parties were seriously challenged by nascent parties and independent political newcomers in the parliamentary polls. With no single list winning the 109-seat majority required to rule parliament, making alliances will be a must resulting in a coalition of blocs ruling the country once again.

Ennahda and Qalb Tounes have, however, ruled out working in any coalition with the other. Even if the top party lists were able to form an alliance, they would need to negotiate with a variety of smaller parties and independents to secure a parliamentary majority. Each of them has excluded the possibility of working with certain rivals.

Given the divided political scene, with no party over 20%, coalition talks could take weeks or even months, according to Sharan Grewal, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on North Africa. "What the coalition needs is a clear plan of action in terms of policies," he tweeted on election day.    

Ben Tili admitted that, with such political mosaic, it will be "very difficult" for parties to make concessions to build a viable coalition with their adversaries. "Some parties are ideologically opposed to others. If talks become deadlocked, forming an independent ‘salvation government’ may be the solution to handle a potential crisis," the watchdog’s coordinator suggested.

Once results are final, the main party in parliament will have two months to form a new government. If it cannot, the president will get to nominate his own candidate to try instead. If that fails, there will be another parliamentary election within minimum 45 days, maximum of 90 days.

Grappling with a stubborn socio-economic economic crisis, the North African country cannot afford a second election and months of political instability while citizens are waiting for solutions to their daily lives. To avoid going to the ballot box again, Ennahdha is likely to be forced to forge political alliances to achieve the formation of a government. The only alternative would be a technocratic government.

Alessandra Bajec

© 2019