As Tunisia Drifts Farther From Democracy, Voters Shun Election

A feeble turnout in Tunisia’s inconclusive parliamentary elections over the weekend drew opposition calls for the country’s strongman president to step down, with critics calling it yet another step in the North African’s nation descent from the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings to an increasingly autocratic state.

Just over 11 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the first election since President Kais Saied orchestrated a sweeping power grab in 2021, suspending the Parliament and sidelining political parties. As Tunisia drifts farther and farther from its decade-long experiment with democracy, critics charge that the president now relies on elections only to add a sheen of legitimacy to his actions.

The largest opposition coalition, the Salvation Front, called for protests and sit-ins, saying the low turnout indicated that Mr. Saied lacked legitimacy and should leave office. Abir Moussi, the head of the opposition Free Constitutional Party, also called on the president to step down, saying that the vast majority of Tunisians had “rejected Saied’s plan.”

The election was the first step in reinstating the Parliament, but with drastically reduced powers that will transform it essentially into an advisory body. It cannot fire the government or remove the president, and bills that Mr. Saied presents will take priority over those proposed by lawmakers. He also barred political parties from participating in elections, making it difficult to decipher the political leanings of the mostly unknown candidates who won seats.

The election commission announced late Monday the victors in races for only 23 of the body’s 161 seats; the remainder will mostly be decided in runoff elections expected next month.

The election came just days after President Biden hosted leaders from across Africa in Washington to declare the United States’ commitment to the continent and voice his support for democracy.

President Kais Saied speaking at a polling station on Saturday. Mr. Saied was elected in 2019 and consolidated power in 2021, sidelining Parliament and political parties.Credit…Tunisian Presidency, via Reuters

Mr. Saied attended the summit and roundly dismissed American criticism of his power grab in a meeting with the editorial board of The Washington Post. He blamed “fake news” for creating the sense that he is an autocrat and accused unidentified “foreign forces” of supporting his political foes.

“There are so many enemies of democracy in Tunisia who want to do everything they can to torpedo the country’s democratic and social life from within,” Mr. Saied said.

The electoral commission said on Monday that only 11.2 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots in what was the country’s fourth election since Tunisians toppled their longtime dictator in a 2011 popular uprising, which set off the wave of Arab Spring revolts across the Middle East.

That was the lowest participation level since the revolution and analysts attributed it to dwindling faith among voters in democracy itself.

The 23 confirmed winners included Ibrahim Bouderbala, the former head of the Tunisian Bar Association and a vocal supporter of Mr. Saied. Three women also won seats.

When the Arab Spring revolts toppled leaders across the Arab world, Tunisia was lauded as the only one to emerge from the tumult as a multiparty democracy. But that legacy has fallen apart in recent years, as economic distress has spread and Mr. Saied has concentrated power in his hands, all but killing the country’s young democracy.

After being elected by a large margin in 2019, Mr. Saied, formerly a little known constitutional law professor, suspended Parliament in 2021 in a move that many Tunisians welcomed, hoping it was a step toward curbing corruption and reviving the economy.

But change has not come, with poverty spreading and increasing numbers of Tunisians attempting often-lethal boat trips to Europe in hopes of starting new lives. Mr. Saied has ruled by presidential decree, pushed through a new constitution that grants him greater powers and issued the electoral law that governed Saturday’s election.

A rally against Mr. Saied in Tunis this month organized by the opposition Salvation Front. The coalition called for protests and sit-ins after this weekend’s vote.Credit…Fethi Belaid/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

That law banned political parties from the electoral process, instead allowing voters to choose individual candidates in each district. It also did away with quotas for women and young candidates, provisions added after the revolution.

Contributing to the low turnout was the absence of activities by political parties — which many Tunisians despise as corrupt and responsible for the country’s declining fortunes. The major parties boycotted the referendum this year that enshrined Mr. Saied’s constitution into law.

Also keeping people away were deep economic woes and a growing sense among voters that it would make little difference who won anyway.

Mr. Saied’s supporters argued that the new electoral law would increase accountability by allowing voters to chose their representatives directly and not only as members of party lists.

But critics said that keeping the parties out meant that only candidates wealthy enough to finance their own campaigns would be able to run.

Analysts had low expectations for the newly chosen Parliament in any case, saying the lack of organized parties to set an agenda would leave it fractured and chaotic, and likely to follow Mr. Saied’s lead on any legislation.

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