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Why are Tunisia’s parliamentary elections so controversial?

President Saied has tried to rally support, but the opposition is boycotting and turnout is expected to be low.

Tunis, Tunisia – Tunisians have begun voting in parliamentary elections, but with a general sense of apathy among many voters and an opposition boycott, turnout has been low.

Saturday’s vote is the first parliamentary vote since 2019 and the first since President Kais Saied dissolved parliament last year.

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The Tunisian opposition has criticized Saied’s moves as a “coup” but says they were necessary to fight what it describes as a “corrupt” political elite.

Many Tunisians fear the country is slipping back toward authoritarianism 10 years after the 2011 revolution that ousted leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and ushered in a period of democracy.

Here’s a closer look at the election and why it’s so controversial.

What is different about this round of elections?

  • These are the first elections under Saied’s new constitution, which was voted on in a referendum on July 25, a year after his decision to sack the government and suspend an opposition-dominated parliament.
  • The new constitution says that parliament is no longer a separate independent power, but is under the control of the president and functions to support his work.
  • A new electoral law means that only individuals can stand for election, rather than parties. Candidates can use party logos, but they cannot be financially backed by any political party, which means they will have to raise their own funds to run.
  • The new law changed voting from a proportional representation list-based system to a one-vote system.
  • The state used to provide financial support for candidates to run campaigns, but under the new law, campaigns are completely self-financed. However, the controversy over illegal sponsorships has already given rise to corruption investigations.
  • Constituency boundaries have been changed, reducing the number of seats in parliament.
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How has the new system been received?

  • Despite attempts to garner support, it appears that not many registered voters are expected to vote, and turnout will be low.
  • The number of candidates is smaller than in previous elections, and some electoral districts have only one candidate or none at all. This is particularly the case for constituencies abroad that represent Tunisian citizens living abroad.
  • Youth and human rights groups say the new system has marginalized women and young people due to the high threshold of nominations required and the difficulty in accessing funding.
  • 12 political parties, including Ennahda, which previously held the largest number of seats in parliament, are boycotting the elections.
  • Candidates are also prohibited from speaking to the international press during their campaigns.

How will the new parliament work?

  • Under the new constitution, parliament is directly under the control of the president. The opposition argues that this will lead to a weak parliament dominated by the president and will serve to pass his laws.
  • Individual members of parliament will still be able to propose new laws, but without political parties, it will be difficult to create blocs and alliances to push for new laws.
  • Parliamentary watchdog Al Bawsala says it will no longer monitor the day-to-day running of parliament because it does not want to give it legitimacy.

What comes next?

  • The preliminary results of the count are not expected to come out until Sunday, and possibly even later. The final results will be published in January.
  • The finance law of 2023 will be published next week. Protests are already expected, and many Tunisians feel it will not do enough to solve the country’s crippling financial crisis.
  • Food shortages, already bad, are expected to get worse and the cost of living to rise.
  • Polls show that many Tunisians have lost confidence in Saied, as well as other political leaders.
  • An increase in civil unrest is expected in the run up to January 14, the day Ben Ali was ousted and fled the country.
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