The second round of Tunisia’s legislative elections on 29 January took place amid escalating political polarisation in the country. They served as a test of the political balances at home, especially with the government’s efforts to promote the transformation of the country towards the presidential system.
Fourteen women from a total of 262 candidates stood in the elections that saw a majority win for the political current loyal to the government of Tunisian President Kais Saied, according to initial estimates. The government has been encouraging voters to turn up at polling stations to make up for the short queues that lined up to cast their ballots in the first round.
The second round of the elections took place as Tunisia continues to suffer from an economic crunch, deteriorating living conditions, and stalled negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to acquire a financial loan.
Meanwhile, the Islamist Ennahda Movement and a number of other opposition parties have announced they will not recognise the results of the elections, saying they are meant to transform the country into a presidential system and limit the powers of parliament.
There have been growing disagreements over many of the political and economic decisions that have been taken by Saied, putting increasing pressure on the government. The latest move was a strike in the transportation sector, with Tunisia’s General Labour Union threatening more strikes to come.
Although the government has responded to pressures from a number of trade union and political actors, Saied has not stood idly by in the face of people that want the country to endure an endless cycle of protests. The latter also played a role in the second round of the elections, affecting some voters’ choice to boycott the electoral process.
Only 10 per cent of Tunisia’s eligible voters cast their ballots in the elections, according to the primary results, particularly due to calls by political opposition forces to boycott the elections in protest at the “coup” Saied was allegedly trying to stage to bring every authority in the state under his control.
The turnout in the second round of the elections was the lowest in Tunisia’s history, leading Saied to claim that some parties have made concealed threats to urge people not to vote. Chair of the Tunisian Independent Higher Authority for Elections Farouk Bouaskar said the final results would be announced after looking into appeals on 4 March.
The second round of the legislative elections has shed light on the rise of political forces supporting Saied as well as the continuation of the public boycott. Saied had earlier recognised the boycott calls, saying it was “the voters’ right to boycott the elections” provided that this did not stand in the way of those wanting to cast their ballots.
A number of opposition parties from the centre and the left of the political spectrum, in addition to Ennahda which had a majority of the seats in the previous parliament, boycotted the elections, hoping to nullify the exceptional measures taken by Saied in July 2021 when he dissolved the parliament and to weaken the government.
However, the elections also showed a mood of calm despite the public refusal to vote amid the deteriorating living and economic conditions and political fragmentation. The tranquil mood was primarily the result of the state’s security provisions as well as warnings against any moves that might disturb the peace during the elections.
While a segment of the voters boycotted the elections, the weak turnout was also the result of feeble election campaigns and the fragile role the opposition parties play in the country’s political sphere, having failed to satisfy the aspirations of most Tunisians when they were in power.
If anything, the second round of the legislative elections revealed that Saied and the parties loyal to him remain at the forefront of Tunisia’s political stage. They also indicated that the country is likely to continue to live in the mood established in July 2021 coupled with political polarisation.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly