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Analysis-Dismal election turnout puts Tunisia president's legitimacy under spotlight

U.S. urges Tunisia to expand political participation
U.S. urges Tunisia to expand political participation Copyright Thomson Reuters 2022
Copyright Thomson Reuters 2022
By Reuters
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By Angus McDowall and Tarek Amara

TUNIS - The ultra-low turnout of 8.8% in Tunisia's parliamentary election on Saturday may prove a defining moment in the struggle between President Kais Saied and a fragmented but increasingly confident opposition that accuses him of a coup.

Opposition politicians said Tunisia's lowest ever turnout stripped away any facade of democratic legitimacy for Saied's political project and called directly for his ouster.

The election was for a mostly toothless legislature that is a part of a top-down political system Saied has imposed since he seized most powers and sent tanks to shut down the previous parliament in July 2021.

"After 90% of Tunisians abstained there is no doubt that Saied's project was largely rejected. Now the options are limited for a president who can no longer constantly sing of legitimacy in the way he used to," said Ahmed Idriss, head of the Tunis Institute for Politics.

Saied now faces choices to: ignore the abstentions and carry on regardless; compromise with opponents he calls enemies of the state and revise his agenda; or double down on one-man rule by saying Tunisians have rejected the whole idea of a parliament.

With Tunisia facing economic crisis, a possible collapse in state finances and the need for a foreign bailout that would require huge cuts in public spending, the political heat on both Saied and his foes is only set to rise.

Until now, Saied's project to remake the political system has relied on the popular legitimacy he claims from a landslide 2019 election victory against a media mogul facing corruption charges and the spontaneous street celebrations when he shut down parliament.

Saied, 64, has presented his actions as not only legal, but necessary to save Tunisia from a dire national crisis created by the very political leaders who now form the main opposition.

However, when he wrote a new constitution this year and put it to a referendum, only about 30% of eligible voters took part. Saturday's dismal turnout strongly reinforced a perception of scant public support for his plans.

On Saturday night the main opposition coalition said for the first time that his presidency was no longer legitimate and called for elections to replace him. A rival opposition party said the same.

As a political independent, Saied lacks the nationwide support of a party apparatus that can mobilise on his behalf. He has also alienated potential allies, such as the powerful labour union, by refusing to include them in his plans.

It is not clear how far he can rely on the security or military authorities to support him if the political crisis spirals.

Tunisia's army has historically abjured a political role and Saied has not yet tested the security forces by trying to mobilise them for a major crackdown on dissent.


The opposition has its own problems.

Many of its leaders are unpopular because of the corruption, political paralysis and economic stagnation when they were in government. It is divided among factions that despise each other as much as they do Saied. And it has not shown it can mobilise the mass street protests it says it wants.

Selling fruit from his truck in Tunis on Sunday, Salem Aoun said Saturday's low turnout "was not a victory for the opposition but a defeat for Saied".

Political events are likely to be driven by Tunisia's unfolding economic crisis.

Ratings agencies have said the government may default on sovereign debt, an event that would immediately cause enormous hardship among many of Tunisia's 14 million people.

Avoiding that disaster would probably require an international bailout through a deal the government is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund.

But to finalise the deal the government must show it can carry out public spending cuts that may at least in the short term make impoverished Tunisians poorer still.

"Politics has become a luxury that we cannot afford," said Lamia Gharbi, who was queuing for bread at a Tunis bakery.

Successive coalition governments have failed to find a fix for public finances that can satisfy lenders without prompting a domestic backlash.

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