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Low turnout a message from the Tunisian people to Saied: ‘Step aside’

Tunis, Tunisia – One day after Tunisians largely rejected the parliamentary elections, the Democratic Current party, one of 11 political parties that boycotted the elections, is calling for the resignation of President Kais Saeid. Party leader Ghazi Chaouachi said the record low voter turnout is a clear message from the people to President Saied that he “no longer has a place in Tunisia and must accept defeat and step aside.”

Chaouachi’s voice is not alone. Immediately after the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) announced the final vote count on Saturday, the opposition movement National Salvation Front held a press conference demanding the resignation of the president.

The opposition front, which includes the Islamist Ennahdha party, also called for a new transition process to begin, complete with a new national dialogue aimed at moving the country forward and returning to a better-functioning state.

President Saeid has been accused of accumulating all authority in his hands since he took power last year, and under the new constitution adopted in a July referendum, the power of parliament has been greatly reduced.

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Even after voter turnout was calculated by poll watchers in Mourakiboun, though higher than the 8.8 percent the electoral authority had previously announced, turnout was surprisingly low at just 11.1 percent, the lowest turnout in Tunisia. and possibly a world record.

The US State Department said in a statement that these new elections “represent an essential initial step toward restoring the country’s democratic trajectory.” However, the State Department expressed concern that “low voter turnout reinforces the need to further expand political participation.”

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The legislative election process will continue until early 2023 with second runoff elections for those seats where there was no clear majority among the competing candidates. Tunisians will again have to vote between two rival candidates. However, many seats had only one candidate who, regardless of the votes, would be declared the outright winner. What remains a mystery is how the seats without candidates will be filled.

Oussama Aouidit of the nationalist Hirak al Echaab (People’s Movement) party, which has supported President Saied’s programme, said his party was also disappointed but not surprised by the lower turnout.

He told Al Jazeera that they are seeing some preliminary success with five party members making it to the second round of the parliamentary election, which is scheduled for the end of January.

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The new parliament under Saied’s new electoral law and constitution has just 161 seats compared to 217 in the 2019 elections. However, since candidates can only run as individuals, the creation of parliamentary blocs and alliances to push for reform projects law seems to be more difficult without a supportive party structure.

Hirak al-Echaab previously held 15 seats in parliament that Saied dissolved last March, and Aouidit believed his party had the potential to become the largest party bloc in the new assembly.

“People are not seeing the fruits of the new political system, so that has not encouraged them to go out and vote. We saw that watching the match between Morocco and Croatia was more important to them than politics,” Aouidit said.

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“The government must impose exceptional measures and an emergency plan for Tunisia to get out of this [economic] crisis,” Aouidit said.

“If people see that the government is doing something to change their situation and they can feel the benefits, they will feel more positive about going out to vote again.”

Tunisia is experiencing its worst economic crisis with a rapidly rising cost of living, unemployment and drastic shortages of basic foods such as milk, cooking oil and sugar.

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The North African state has also been desperately seeking funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But a financial bill that President Saeid was expected to pass has been delayed, meaning the IMF will not discuss Tunisia’s refinancing loan on Monday, putting Tunisia in an even more precarious situation.

Saeid’s decision to reverse the democratic political process started after the 2011 revolution initially received some support from the people in the hope that it would address the dire economic situation facing the country.

But about a year and a half later, the economic situation has gone from bad to worse, with high inflation and unemployment.

The second round of the elections will take place at the end of January and the final results of the elections could come as late as February. Across the political spectrum, voter fatigue and a lack of trust mean voters have already completely disengaged.

Tunisian political analyst and author Amine Snoussi said: “Tunisians cannot stand in another election if it is under the conditions of Kais Saied.” He said that the lack of trust between the electorate and the electoral authorities is a great loss.

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“One of the most important achievements of the revolution was that the people voted and trusted the results of the elections and accepted and proceeded in peace.”

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He said the only way forward was to get out of the Saied system and engage political parties and the electorate.

Protesters are seen holding a sign that reads
Demonstrators carry flags and banners during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied in front of the parliament, in Tunis, on November 14, 2021. [Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters]

For the moment, Saied appears resolutely ensconced in the presidential palace, with no sign of stepping aside as the opposition is demanding.

Monica Marks, assistant professor of Arab crossover studies at New York University, said Tunisia is concerned that Saied will go ahead with his “vague Gaddafi-style vision to reinvent Tunisia’s political wheel, which the Tunisians didn’t ask for.”

Across the political spectrum, everyone agrees that the most urgent need is for an economic bailout to address the problems faced by people with rapidly inflating costs of living and lack of food.

An initial draft of the new finance bill calls for sharp tax increases aimed at raising funds for the cash-strapped country. However, it is feared that this austerity budget will hurt Tunisians even more than it is already hurting them.

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