Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

Tunisians have voiced their frustration at the polls

Poor turnouts in elections and a rise in populist leaders reflect a fractured political landscape

A Tunisian woman displays her ink-stained finger after casting her ballot at a polling station in the capital Tunis during the legislative. AFP
A Tunisian woman displays her ink-stained finger after casting her ballot at a polling station in the capital Tunis during the legislative. AFP

Less than a month after Tunisia’s fast-tracked presidential elections, voters went to the ballot box once again on Sunday to decide who should get a seat in parliament. Yet the outcome of both elections has been far from conclusive. All parties and coalition lists running for parliament received less than one-fifth of votes, with Ennahda leading with 17 per cent of the vote, while Qalb Tounes, or Heart of Tunisia – the party founded by jailed businessman and presidential candidate Nabil Karoui – came in second with just over 15 per cent, according to exit polls. None of the contenders are likely to have enough seats to form a majority, which means that Tunisia’s next government will most likely be based on a coalition. In an already fractured political landscape and with neither of the two leading parties willing to unite, that is deeply disconcerting.

Tunisia’s fragmented politics are not new. No party has managed to secure a clear-cut majority since the 2011 uprising, making coalitions and compromise an intrinsic part of the fabric of political life. From 2011 to 2014, Ennahda was part of a troika government with the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties and the Congress for the Republic. After the 2014 election, Ennahda remained in power, thanks to a coalition government with Nidaa Tounes, the secular party founded by the late president Beji Caid Essebsi, which later evolved into a Government of National Unity that included opposition parties.

But today, compromise does not seem to be part of the equation, putting Tunisia’s fragile project at risk of unravelling. The two leading parties in the parliamentary elections have ruled out forming an alliance and will most likely have to rely on smaller parties to attempt to form a majority, at a time when the country is still in a quandary about who will be its next president. That decision, too, remains inconclusive, with a run-off ballot scheduled for October 13 and one of the two presidential candidates, Karoui, behind bars on fraud charges. If the party with the most votes fails to form a coalition within two months, the president – whoever that might be - could task another party to try. And if that too fails to produce a result, then a rerun of the legislative polls will likely be scheduled to avoid a hung parliament.

Despite the confusion, one thing is clear. In presidential and parliamentary polls, Tunisians have united in expressing frustration and disenchantment with the status quo. Many feel those in power have failed to tackle the country’s economic woes or systemic problems ranging from corruption to extremism and unemployment.

The two candidates competing to become Tunisia's next president are outside the political mainstream, despite several high-profile politicians running, including Ennahda’s Abdelfattah Mourou after the party fielded a presidential candidate for the first time, and current prime minister Youssef Chahed. Instead, a relative unknown, law professor Kais Saied, secured first place with 18 per cent of the vote, by running on a platform of law and order.

Not only have new political actors with little experience entered the scene but Tunisia is more divided than ever

Runner-up Karoui ran a populist campaign focusing on his philanthropic work for the poor and promising to champion economic development. His party was only formed six months ago, yet is the main challenger to Ennahda for a parliamentary majority. Despite winning the largest number of votes, Ennahda has performed badly, dropping more than 10 per cent in the poll from the 2014 election. Ennahda’s Islamist outlook contradicts many of Tunisia’s long-held political traditions. The vote was also a huge blow to Nidaa Tounes, which is projected to have only one seat – the consequence of years of internal divisions within the party.

As a result, not only have new political actors with little experience entered the scene but Tunisia is more divided than ever. Elections were also hindered by a relatively low turnout of just over 40 per cent, compared to more than 70 per cent in 2014. High abstention rates and the rise of populist leaders send a clear message to the political elite: Tunisians are exasperated and want to see effective change. This should serve as a wake-up call for politicians to stop putting personal interests and internal divisions before the people they seek to represent. They need to work hard to restore confidence in the state and prioritise the needs of Tunisians first and foremost.

Updated: October 8, 2019 05:53 PM

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