Tunisia Heads for First Elections Since Presidential Power Grab

TUNIS — Depending on whom you ask in Tunisia, Saturday’s parliamentary elections — the first since a 2021 presidential power grab that all but killed the country’s young democracy — represent either major progress or a charade.

To some, the new electoral law governing the vote is an innovation that will shatter the power of the corrupt political parties that wrecked Tunisia’s economy, subverted justice and made a mockery of the country’s 10-year experiment with democracy. To others, it is the illegitimate brainchild of a president with autocratic aspirations of his own.

It may be seen as delivering a group of parliamentarians perceived as far more representative of their districts than previous Tunisian assemblies, or a rubber-stamp chamber that will impose few checks on President Kais Saied’s one-man rule. It might be the next step in Mr. Saied’s plan to clean up corruption and return Tunisia to prosperity and the original goals of the 2011 revolution. Or it is the next stop on the way to looming political and economic ruin.

This will be the fourth time that Tunisians have gone to the polls since overthrowing an autocrat in the 2011 revolt, which inspired the Arab Spring uprisings across the region and established the only democracy to emerge from the movement.

The elections will resuscitate a body that Mr. Saied suspended in July 2021 in what growing numbers of Tunisians now call a coup, demolishing the young democracy as he began governing by presidential decree. At the time, Tunisians from all classes and regions greeted the moment with cheers and relief, hoping and believing that Mr. Saied would fulfill the revolution’s unmet promises.

The president later vowed to restore the assembly as part of a series of sweeping political changes, including the drafting of a new constitution that he personally oversaw, that would put Tunisia back on track.

Caught between their misgivings about the president and loathing of the political parties who oppose him, many Tunisians appear lukewarm at best on this vote. The scant interest may partly reflect the fact that Tunisians’ minds are occupied by making ends meet, not politics.

But the new Parliament will look little like the one it replaces thanks to Mr. Saied’s new constitution and electoral law, which, among other changes, prevents political parties from being involved in elections. And as the economy has cratered over the past year, more Tunisians are losing faith that Mr. Saied’s project will bring about the changes they are desperate to see.

A secondhand clothing stall in front of a poster of President Kais Saied in Kairouan, Tunisia, this summer. The country’s economy has been struggling, with high prices and not enough jobs.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

“What is happening is just a charade,” said Haifa Homri, 24, a law student who went from volunteering for Mr. Saied’s presidential campaign in 2019 to joining an anti-Saied protest of several hundred people in central Tunis last Saturday. “We can’t call them elections,” she added.

“I see that the president has made promises,” she said. “But in reality, we can all see the economy is collapsing,” she added, pointing to Tunisia’s grim reality: prices too high, jobs too few, basics such as cooking oil and bottled water scarce on store shelves, and record numbers of people drowning off the coast in a desperate bid to migrate to Europe.

Mr. Saied’s new electoral law, which, like all laws since July 2021, was issued by decree, removes from the electoral process the much-despised political parties that constitute some of his only organized opposition.

It has voters selecting individual candidates in each district instead of a party list — a change Mr. Saied’s supporters say will buttress democratic accountability by ensuring new members of Parliament know and are known by the people they represent.

All political parties are also banned from financing candidates, and there are no longer quotas for female or young candidates, which were instituted after the revolution.

Those regulations have raised concerns that, far from becoming more representative of the country, Parliament will fill with men with the means to fund their own campaigns: businessmen, local notables and tribal elders. Of the 1,055 candidates running for 161 seats, just 122 are women.

Such rules have led most of the major parties to boycott the elections, as they did the referendum earlier this year in which Tunisians approved Mr. Saied’s new constitution. They say the vote is illegitimate.

Yet some analysts warn that sitting out the election risks ceding the entire field to Saied supporters, who include many of the candidates.

Without parties to set the agenda and unite members around common causes, the new Parliament is expected to be fractured, chaotic and unproductive, offering few checks on the president’s power.

Even an assembly full of political opponents would be largely helpless, as Mr. Saied’s new constitution greatly increases presidential power, reducing Parliament to an advisory role from the main force in government.

Tunisians waiting to receive salaries and pensions at a post office in Tunis this summer. The government is struggling to meet a heavy debt burden and pay public salaries, among other economic problems.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

“So this is doomed to be a Parliament that is marginalized,” said Youssef Cherif, a political analyst who is the director of the Columbia Global Centers in Tunis. “I think people will now understand more and more that the power is in the hands of the president.”

With Mr. Saied as the focus, opposition leaders defending the post-2011, pre-July 2021 order confidently predict that more Tunisians will abandon Mr. Saied as the economy degenerates. But analysts say his failure does not guarantee their success unless they can offer Tunisians a convincing alternative, a challenge for politicians whom Tunisians blame for what they call the “black decade” after the revolution.

“Tunisians who are expecting their socioeconomic conditions to improve once Ennahda is pushed out of power and once Saied is able to implement his project — I think they will be disappointed, because things will not improve quickly,” Mr. Cherif said, referring to the Islamist party that dominated Parliament until July 2021.

While polls have shown Mr. Saied’s support declining, the opposition parties’ numbers are far worse. Anti-government demonstrations, though growing, remain much smaller than in previous years, something analysts attribute to Mr. Saied’s enduring popularity.

Though the major political parties have been stripped of power for nearly a year and a half, Mr. Saied’s supporters say those same parties are conspiring to block his changes.

“Political parties are boycotting because these elections will put an end to their corruption,” said Salah Mait, an unemployed man from the capital, Tunis, who said he strongly supported Mr. Saied and his plans. “Their programs were just slogans. They just want to be in power.”

Turnout has declined in every election since the revolution as faith in democracy has dwindled. The Chahed Observatory, an elections monitor, said the level of interest in the vote is the lowest in a decade, even below July’s constitutional referendum, when turnout was less than a third.

In previous elections, party organizations helped boost turnout and energy. But this time, the self-funded candidates have mounted anemic campaigns, and only one candidate is on the ballot in some districts.

And then there is the preoccupation with the flailing economy.

Though the government has struck a preliminary deal with the International Monetary Fund for a $1.9 billion loan, economists say it will cover only a small part of the country’s needs. The government is struggling to meet a heavy debt burden, pay public salaries and keep importing basic commodities.

A demonstration against Mr. Saied last week in Tunis.Credit…Fethi Belaid/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The conditions the government agreed to have drawn the ire of Tunisia’s public-sector labor union, earning Mr. Saied a powerful new opponent over the very issue on which he is most vulnerable.

“The country is living through a suffocating situation and deteriorating on every level,” Noureddine Taboubi, the secretary general of the union, said in a speech to members this month. “We are going into elections without color or taste that came from a constitution that was not collaborative, not a result of consensus nor approval by the majority,” he added.

“The elections are a charade,” some in the crowd began shouting.

The union’s opposition has helped prevent previous Tunisian governments from pushing through the tough changes that the I.M.F. demands, such as selling off publicly owned companies and lifting subsidies on food, gas and electricity.

With the economy in free fall, the drumbeat of politically motivated prosecutions and the weakening of civil liberties under Mr. Saied have drawn less attention. But the president remains steadfast against criticism.

“Tunisians know that all the work I’m doing is for Tunisians to live with dignity and liberty,” he said while visiting a poor neighborhood in Tunis on Sunday night, going on to criticize the opposition as doing little to improve living conditions when it was in power. “We will stick to the principles we started with, and we will carry on.”

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