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Record low turnout, opposition boycott mars Tunisian election

Tunis, Tunisia – Tunisia’s parliamentary election on Saturday saw a record turnout as most political parties boycotted the polls, denouncing them as the culmination of President Kais Saied’s march toward one-man rule.

Last year Saied, a former law professor, overthrew the government and suspended parts of a 2014 constitution, which was the product of the Arab democratic uprising in 2011. The charter restricted the powers of the president in favor of parliament and the prime minister.

Tunisia’s previous parliament, which Saied closed in 2021 when he went on to rule by decree in moves his enemies called a coup, was elected with a turnout of about 40 percent.

Saied called Saturday’s legislative vote a “historic day” and urged Tunisians to cast their ballots.

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“It is a historic day in every way. [The election date] it was decided and respected despite all the obstacles,” he said after voting at a polling station in the capital Tunis.

However, less than 9 percent of registered voters turned out to cast their ballots on Saturday.

Since morning, people barely arrived at the polling stations. For most of the day, it seemed like there were more staff and security at the polling place than there were voters. Observers said the numbers were in the tens at best.

At 08:05 am (0705 GMT) at a polling station in central Tunis, only one woman, local small business owner Manoubia Shagawi, had turned up to vote.

“I want to support my country and support my president. I want the country to move forward and improve and that’s why I voted today,” she said.

This was in stark contrast to a group of young women who, when asked if they intended to vote, responded with a resounding “No” and walked away.

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Oumaima ben Abdullah, an activist with the center-left Democratic Current party, said: “The active boycott is from people from civil society and political parties.”

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Zoubeir Daly, a founding member of Tunisia’s election observation association, Mourakiboun, explained that people were staying away from ballot papers out of silent protest rather than apathy.

“It is a statement about the feelings of the people about the situation of the country in general,” he said.

Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra said the turnout is an indication of the general sentiment among Tunisians who are worried about the future of their country.

“The opposition has boycotted the elections,” he said. “The largest and most powerful union, UGTT, has decided that it will not participate in this political process and has been very critical of President Saied.”

Ahelbarra said the tattered economy, high inflation and skyrocketing food prices are factors in why many people didn’t vote.

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“This explains why people in recent weeks lost hope in the political process and therefore [there was] an unprecedented low turnout in Tunisia,” he explained.

‘Vote for whom?’

In the capital, Tunis, the electoral process itself went smoothly.

The new observers, the Russian Civic Committee, were impressed with the calm professionalism of the election teams that operated the centers. Security was less intrusive than during the July referendum, but still, against the rules, members of the security services regularly roamed polling stations out of boredom rather than intimidate.

Far from the capital, however, other observers witnessed vote buying in the west, at various polling stations in Nabeul to the south, Gafsa in the marginalized hinterland and in the desert town of Tozeur. To the west, near the Algerian border in the town of Sbeitla, Mourakiboun witnessed a fight between supporters of rival candidates.

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The lack of information about the candidates has been a huge turnoff for many of the electorates. Aymen, a Tunisian taxi driver, said that he did not plan to vote.

“Vote for whom? I have no idea who these people are,” she said.

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Zyna Mejri of Tunisia’s False fact-checking association said the campaign and the holding of the elections have been marked by poor communication and even worse reporting.

“I think it is based on the ignorance of the candidates. They do not know what the role of the new parliament will be. I don’t think many of them have read the new constitution and don’t know the difference between an MP and a cabinet minister.”

Mejri said this has led to unintentional deception of the electorate.

“They have been making promises that they will not be able to keep because they believe they will have the powers of ministers and warned that this could cause problems once parliament starts working,” he said.

‘The world of the old’

Monica Marks, an assistant professor of Arab Cross Road Studies at New York University, told Al Jazeera: “No candidate running in today’s election could understand what their role might be. No one, not even the most experienced constitutional scholars or Tunisian experts, knows what the role of a member of parliament will be.”

After the polls closed, the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) released the final voter turnout figure of just 8.8 percent of the 9.3 million registered voters.

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Marks said she was surprised to see such a seemingly honest voter turnout figure.

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“If ISIE had said that voter turnout was over 10 percent, I would have questioned it,” he said.

Throughout the run-up to the elections, human rights groups have denounced the lack of women and youth candidates. On polling day, the majority (66.1 percent) of voters were male and over the age of 45, with the largest group over the age of 60.

Commenting on voter demographics, Marks said: “We saw this in the referendum in the summer and we see it even more dramatically now to shift Tunisia from one of the most progressive models of gender, youth to a man’s world, and not just a man’s world.” but the world of an old man.

The initial results of the legislative elections will be announced on Sunday, but it remains to be seen how parliament will actually function.

“One thing is certain: this parliament will be a powerless Potemkin parliament,” Marks told Al Jazeera.

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