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

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