What's next for Tunisia after huge election boycott?

Tunisian President Kais Saied casting his ballot at a polling station near Tunis on December 17, 2022

Tunisia’s massive election boycott has further challenged the legitimacy of President Kais Saied, but a divided and discredited opposition poses little threat to his grip on power, experts say.

Just 11 percent of voters showed up for the elections on Saturday for a parliament stripped of most powers under Saied, who last year launched what critics have labelled a bloodless coup.

On Monday, the electoral board revised the turnout slightly upwards from an earlier figure of nine percent.

– Why was turnout so low? –

The legislative vote came on the 12th anniversary of the event that sparked the country’s pro-democracy uprising, the self-immolation of fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi.

The election capped a year and a half of political turmoil since Saied sacked the government, surrounded parliament with tanks and seized full executive powers in July 2021.

Few Tunisians showed any interest in the election, with no serious public debate among the 1,055 candidates. Most were unknowns and fewer than 12 percent were women.

Under a constitution Saied rammed through in an also widely ignored referendum in July, political parties were sidelined and candidates ran as individuals.

Most of the North African country’s parties, including the Islamist-leaning Ennahdha that has dominated post-revolt politics, had urged a boycott.

The new assembly, as well as having little popular backing, will be largely toothless under a constitution that makes it near-impossible for it to sack the government or hold the president to account.

– How does it affect Saied? –

Despite his grip on power, the low turnout “is a huge disappointment for Saied because he was counting on popular support” to legitimise his actions, said analyst Abdellatif Hannachi.

A former constitutional law lecturer, Saied was elected with 70 percent of the vote in 2019.

He had made a string of public appearances in the previous days to drum up voter interest, but turnout still came in at a record low for Tunisian votes since the revolution.

“His popular legitimacy is collapsing,” said expert Hamadi Redissi.

“It has turned out to be an illusion built on speculation and chatter by his loyalists.” 

– What can the opposition do? –

Both Ennahdha and its sworn enemy, the staunchly secularist Free Destourian Party (PDL), have demanded Saied step down and announce a presidential election.

But Redissi pointed out that “there is no mechanism to force him out”.

Youssef Cherif of the Columbia Global Centers said he doubted Saied would step down “or even admit that these elections were a failure”.

When the constitution passed in the referendum with just over 30 percent turnout, “he also refused to admit defeat”, Cherif said.

Moreover, “as he has done everything to restore the presidential system that existed before 2011, the legislative elections are marginal in his eyes,” Cherif said.

Tunisia’s opposition is deeply split into three main blocks: the Ennahdha-dominated National Salvation Front, leftist parties and the PDL.

Much of the division stems from attitudes towards Ennahdha, which had held sway over Tunisia’s government and legislative process for a decade until Saied’s power grab.

Many Tunisians blame Ennahdha above all for the cash-strapped country’s current economic and political woes.

The lack of opposition unity has meant that anti-Saied demonstrations rarely gather more than 7,000 people.

Hannachi said Saturday’s low participation showed that political parties could not mobilise the public. The powerful UGTT trade union federation is one of the few actors capable of mobilising mass protests.

“Only an economic collapse — which is obviously not desirable — could unblock the situation,” Redissi said.

Tunisia is already in a deep economic downturn, with mounting public debt, inflation at 10 percent and spiralling poverty exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.

– What do foreign powers think? –

Yet as Tunisia waits for the International Monetary Fund to sign off on a nearly $2-billion bailout package, Hannachi noted that Saied had promised the country’s foreign allies a roadmap. 

“Now it has been put into action,” he said.

The United States, which has been critical of Saied’s power grab, said Sunday that the election was “an essential initial step toward restoring the country’s democratic trajectory”.

Washington’s backing will be critical for securing IMF funds which would then unblock other potential funding from European and Gulf countries.

Redissi said Western powers were trying to find a “balance between their values and their interests” when it came to Tunisia.

The country’s small size and population means it “doesn’t represent much” in a world of rapidly shifting geopolitical forces.

“For (Western powers), the most important thing is the country’s stability,” he said.