Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

Tunisia elections: early exit polls suggest victory for Ennahda party

Vote comes two weeks after first round of presidential poll that swept aside traditional political parties

Soldiers stand guard as military trucks transport ballot boxes and election material to be distributed to polling stations, ahead of the Sunday's parliamentary election, in Tunis, Tunisia October 5, 2019. Reuters
Soldiers stand guard as military trucks transport ballot boxes and election material to be distributed to polling stations, ahead of the Sunday's parliamentary election, in Tunis, Tunisia October 5, 2019. Reuters

Unofficial exit polls in Tunisia's legislative election have suggested a victory for Ennahda ahead of Qalb Tounes, the party of imprisoned TV magnate Nabil Karoui.

But with the distribution of seats still unclear, confirmation of a parliamentary majority, although likely, cannot be made yet.

While surpassing many commentators' predictions, turnout remained low at 41.3 per cent.

The elections fell between two sets of presidential polls, the final of which will take place on October 13. But there is a general sense of disenfranchisement in the country.

Sitting on a plastic chair by the roadside in the working class Tunis suburb of Beb Djedid, retired Ahmed Laabidi, 67, said he did not vote for any party.

"They promise everything but do nothing," Mr Laabidi said. "It's been eight years since the revolution and no government has done anything.

"Before the revolution, five Tunisian dinars could buy you a lot. Now it gets you nothing."

In nearby Bab Mnara, Zouhair Dkhil, 66, lounged in a cafe chair.

"People have lost trust with the government," Mr Dkhil said.

Under the terms of the 2014 Constitution, Tunisia’s Parliament carries real power.

Envisaged as a genuine partner in government, Parliament holds all legislative powers, and the ability to appoint the prime minister, who shares power with the president.

But parliamentary divisions and the ever-increasing number of political parties has done little to speed up much-needed economic recovery or stem disenfranchisement.

Across the country, unemployment is about 15 per cent, with youth joblessness reportedly as high as 34 per cent in some areas.

Inflation has risen from 3 to 4 per cent before the revolution to more than 7 per cent in late 2018.

Everywhere, life is becoming more expensive as the purchasing power of salaries shrinks.

Not all of this can be blamed on Parliament.

But the rejection of establishment politics that marked the first round of the presidential elections is expected to continue, with new parties and independents all expected to make inroads.

The one wild card is Qalb Tounes.

Mr Karoui’s campaign has suffered setbacks since his August 23 incarceration on charges of tax evasion and money laundering, as appeal after appeal were rejected by the courts before the legislative and presidential votes.

However, what may yet prove the killer blow was served on Wednesday, when Al Monitor website published what is purported to be a million-dollar contract between him and Canadian lobbying firm Dickens & Madson.

Alhough the authenticity of the signatories is disputed by Mr Karoui’s team, suggestions of soliciting foreign aid within Tunisia’s electoral process may run contrary to Qalb Tounes' populist message and hurt the party’s chances at the polls.

Possibly the most significant challenger is the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, whose leader Rached Ghannouchi is running as a legislative candidate in Sunday’s poll.

But voters expressed dissatisfaction with the country's biggest political party.

"I voted for Qalb Tounes against Ennahda," Mr Dkhil said. "They've been in for years and they've done nothing. People have lost trust with the government.

Although the party’s vote was almost certainly undermined during the presidential elections by the socially conservative messages of law professor Kais Saied, the legislative vote should see Ennahda operate more freely.

But perceptions of the party have shifted, leading to much of its traditional vote ebbing away.

It went from 37 per cent of the Constituent Assembly vote in 2011, to 28 per cent in the 2014 elections, a position it broadly maintained into the 2018 municipal vote.

Possibly the most dramatic political implosion of the day is likely to be that of Nidaa Tounes, the former party of late president Beji Caid Essebsi.

The party Mr Essebsi founded with Mr Karoui and others as a secular bulwark against Ennahda in 2012, has been riven by splits and the ambitions of Mr Essebsi’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi.

They prompted Mr Karoui to leave the party in 2017, two years before reinventing himself as the anti-system champion of Tunisia’s poor.

But the party continues to forge ahead, fielding candidates on all 33 lists and with considerable resources to support the secular activists it hopes to establish within the assembly.

Then there is Tahya Tounes, the party of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

Despite his prominence, Mr Chahed was defeated in the first round of the presidential vote, finishing fifth.

It is possible that his party could be equally tainted by the associations with austerity that probably damaged their figurehead's standing.

In trying to cater to all voters, it may end up appealing to none.

Beyond them stands a plethora of minor parties and independents, the most notable of which are Abir Moussi’s Free Destourian Party, a successor to that of the late autocrat, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Then there is 3lch Tounsi, the party of Olfa Terras-Rambourg, a wealthy Tunisian-French philanthropist who is also on the periphery of the lobbying scandal that threatens to engulf Mr Karoui’s campaign.

But with the polls open until 6pm local time, Tunisian voters may again deliver a surprise and vote for the second shock result of this electoral season.

Updated: October 7, 2019 12:50 AM

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