As Tunisia Heads to the Polls, Saied Risks more than He Thinks
Federica Zoja 15 December 2022

On Saturday, December 17th, Tunisians voted for the Assembly of People’s Representatives, what has become the lower house of the Tunisian parliament under the latest constitutional amendments. This was the first vote since the new charter was adopted by referendum last July 25th, and, in September, the electoral system was drastically overhauled.

The Parliament that came out of the October 2019 election – still only one chamber – was not able not complete its five-year cycle: first it was ‘frozen’ in July 2021, then it was finally dissolved in March this year by the current President of the Republic Kais Saied. The upper house, called the National Assembly of Regions and Districts, will be appointed indirectly; that is, by elected regional councils at a later date yet to be set.

The date identified by the presidency for the legislative election is a highly symbolic one: it was on December 17th, 2010, that the popular revolution began, leading to the ousting of president-dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali just four weeks later.

But what revolutionary change could emerge from these elections, as the president intends?

Since the dawn of the summer 2019 election campaign, the Tunisian “Savonarola” has declared war on the parties, denouncing their corruption, incompetence and laziness. Electoral mastheads that secured him the support of a wide cross-section of society, including even the youngest, exasperated by the lack of prospects for the future.

In his first two years in office, however, Saied does not seem to have succeeded in straightening out neither the politics nor the economy of the country: rather than leading an ethical revolution with socio-economic repercussions, the president is in danger of being the architect of a totalitarian involution. Or even worse, an outbreak of violence.

Here are some changes introduced to the 2014 electoral law that will have decisive consequences on the structure of the Assembly of Representatives (the seats are 161 and no longer 217, of which 151 will be elected in national constituencies and ten will represent the diaspora): in the lists, the mandatory alternation between male and female candidates has been eliminated; moreover, there are no longer fixed quotas for candidates which are disabled or under 35 years of age.

The first is a punch in the gut for defenders of gender equality: against an initial ratio of women to men ‘registered’ for election of 1 to 9, the electoral commission then endorsed about 16 women for every 100 candidates.

A vertical collapse when one considers that the very mandatory alternation between men and women on candidate lists produced 47 percent female representatives in the August 2018 municipal elections.

The electoral system under which Tunisians will now go to vote will be uninominal, with two rounds in case an absolute majority is not reached in the first round. The proportional system is no more, responsible for a morbid political dispersion: three years ago, there were more than 15,000 candidates in the legislative elections, submitted by civic lists, some 30 parties, a few thousand independents. The result was an Assembly paralyzed by divisions, leading to some 20 political acronyms in continuous brawls with each other.

And that is precisely why candidates were not allowed to run for a party, only stand independently (although of course, as far as names already known to the general public are concerned, political affiliation is common knowledge). A requirement that each candidate submit at least 400 signatures of eligible citizens in order to run for office led to a number of difficulties for less affluent, younger, and even first-time candidates.

A total ban is in place on giving interviews to foreign media (which are those with the largest audience and following in Tunisia as in other North African countries, just think of the Qatar-based al-Jazeera or the Emirati al-Arabia, as far as TV stations are concerned, and the Saudi-edited London-based Shark El-Awsat or Turkish al-Hurriyet, to name just a handful equipped with websites, as well as radio stations, that have a strong following).

Among the consequences of this new ‘approach’ to politics created by President Saied, in October, when it came time to collect candidacies, people struggled so much that the period in which to register their names was extended by several days. And despite this, some constituencies remained ‘uncovered’: in seven out of the ten foreign constituencies the vote will not be held due to lack of candidates. In ten others, at home, only one candidate will be running.

But let us turn back to the great and only protagonist of the Tunisian institutional scene at the moment: President Kais Saied, a retired former university professor of constitutional law.

From the summer of 2021 onward, the “Raìs” has progressively concentrated all state powers in himself, “emptying” any competing organs of prerogatives given to them by the Constitution.

Dismissing the government of Hicham Mechichi – with the support of the Egyptian intelligence services, according to journalistic reconstructions neither confirmed nor completely denied – after having already entered a collision course with previous Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh, Saied moved along two parallel tracks: precisely that of fighting an all-out war against the parties, particularly those that in the post-Tunisian Spring era led the country, through investigations into corruption and money laundering that are still ongoing and have caused prominent members of the political and economic elite to flee abroad; ensuring a reinforced presidential system for himself or his successor.

Thus, while unilaterally the president was proposing electoral reform that he himself drafted, the top leadership of the Islamist Ennahda party was being impeached for its uneasy friendship with Qatar‘s Islamists. Wealthy and influential fellows who like to champion the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world.

But Saied’s doggedness spares no one: if the Ennahda Islamists and the liberals of Nidaa Tounès have been decimated – even in the face of public opinion – over their failure to govern the country and their failure to put self-interest before that of the nation, those nostalgic of the ancien régime (Abir Moussi‘s Free Desturian Party) are targeted for their overt sympathies for the industrial oligarchies.

And Qalb Tounès, founded by tycoon Nabil Karoui and only partially involved in government responsibilities, is accused of propaganda by spreading fake news on social media and online. That is, the preferred tool of a populist political force that has built consensus precisely through the web.

Currently, the only thing that the main Tunisian parties, both those who were in the majority in the previous parliament and the left-wing oppositions, have in common is the call to boycott the vote, which was already launched at the time of the constitutional referendum and proved futile, since there was no quorum.

Last Saturday, December 10th, hundreds of Tunisians took to the streets of the capital to demand women’s rights, an issue to which Tunisian society is particularly sensitive and always on high alert.

The chronic absence of the Constitutional Court is another source of tension between the presidency – who also retains widespread support from those who fear the spread of Islamism – and his opponents: in his three years in office, the constitutionalist Saied has made no effort to promote its formation. On the other hand, once operational the same court could curb the president’s actions.

But it is because of the economic context that Saied risks (not) surviving. The dinar’s serious devaluation (currently 1 Tunisian dinar is worth 0.30 euros), inflation (the year-on-year average is over 9 percent, but food has peaks of 27-30 percent), unemployment (at 18 percent on average, over 40 percent among young people), and migration to Europe (to Italy, it has exceeded 17,500 landings over 2022).

For Saied, who is on an official visit to Washington for the US-Africa summit, the situation could quickly worsen, as he has no European or American backing: just on the eve of the vote, the International Monetary Fund announced that the $1.9 billion loan requested by Tunis is not even on the agenda of topics to be discussed at the December 14-22 session.

Whichever Assembly emerges from the polls on Saturday, December 17th, and consequently the government, speed of action and effectiveness in initial financial measures will be essential to ensure the stability of a democracy that is fragile and fraught with challenges, now more than ever.


Cover Photo:  A youth walks past electoral posters for candidates running in the Tunisian national election scheduled for December 17, glued on a wall along the side of a road in Tunisia’s capital Tunis on December 14, 2022 (FETHI BELAID/AFP)


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