By Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall
TUNIS (Reuters) – An exit poll showed the moderate Islamist Ennahda party narrowly emerging as the largest party in Tunisia’s parliamentary election on Sunday, but with only a small proportion of votes, which may make it hard to build a governing coalition.
The poll by Sigma Conseil, broadcast on state television, showed Ennahda with 17.5% of votes and the Heart of Tunisia party of detained media mogul Nabil Karoui with 15.6%. No official results are expected on Sunday.
If confirmed, the result would leave Tunisia with a deeply fractured parliament in which Ennahda would need to join together with numerous rival parties and independents to gain a working majority.
Both Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia had earlier claimed victory in the election. Both have ruled out working in any coalition that contains the other.
It was the third free parliamentary election in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution that ended decades of autocratic rule and introduced democracy, with a new constitution agreed in 2014.
However, turnout in the election was only 41%, the electoral commission said, with many voters annoyed by years of ineffective coalitions that have been unable to address chronic economic problems.
Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia have both made fighting poverty the central plank of their electoral platforms.
Karoui is one of two candidates who made it through the first round of a presidential election last month to reach a runoff vote to be held next Sunday.
He was arrested in August on charges of money laundering and tax fraud, which he denies, and has contested the election from a jail cell pending his trial.
Any new government will face the same challenges that have bedevilled its predecessors – high unemployment, inflation and public debt, a powerful union that resists change and foreign lenders who demand it.
However, Ennahda’s projected vote share would translate into only about 40 seats, with 109 needed to form a majority. In the last election in 2014, it gained 27.8% of the votes and 69 seats, while the winner, Nidaa Tunis, took 37.6% and 86 seats.
They later joined together in coalition. Any such coalition building this time will likely prove a far more vexatious and prolonged process, despite the need to urgently address economic problems that remain unsolved eight years after the revolution.
Ennahda now has two months from the election to create a coalition before the president can ask another party to begin negotiations to form a government. If that fails, the election will be held again.
The failure of repeated coalition governments that grouped the old secular elite plus Ennahda to address the economy, along with declining public services has dismayed many Tunisians.
“After the revolution, we were all optimistic and our hopes were high. But hope has been greatly diminished now as a result of the disastrous performance of the rulers and the former parliament,” said Basma Zoghbi, a worker for Tunis municipality.
Unemployment, 15% nationally and 30% in some cities, is higher than it was under the former autocrat, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who died last month in exile in Saudi Arabia.
While the president directly controls foreign and defence policy, the largest party in parliament nominates the prime minister, who forms a government that shapes most domestic policy.
At several polling stations visited by Reuters on Sunday, there seemed to be few younger voters.
One of them, Imad Salhi, 28, a waiter, was concerned about the direction of Tunisian politics. “I am very afraid that the country will fall into the hands of populists in the next stage,” he said.
The success of Karoui and Kais Saied, a retired law professor with conservative social views, in the first round of the presidential election has put pressure on the established parties.
“Tunisians should be proud for their democracy but the focus should be on economic and social conditions of Tunisians,” Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi told Reuters after voting in Tunis.
(Reporting by Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall; Editing by Alison Williams, Kirsten Donovan and Frances Kerry)