Polling in the Maghreb

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

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."

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