By Tarek Amara
TUNIS -Tunisian polling stations were quiet on Sunday for run-offs in a parliamentary election that drew only 11% turnout in December’s first round, an outcome critics of the president said undermined his claims of public support for sweeping political change.
With political parties boycotting the vote, most candidates are independents and attention is likely to focus on whether there will be higher participation than there was in December.
The electoral commission said that turnout stood at 4.7% at 11 a.m. on Sunday, three hours after polls opened. In December it had announced turnout of about 3% at 10 a.m.
The commission will use Sunday’s figure as the overall one for both rounds of the election and the opposition has said it fears the authorities will try to inflate the figures.
“I’m not interested in elections that do not concern me,” said Nejib Sahli, 40, passing a polling station in the Hay Ettahrir district of Tunis shortly before voting was due to begin.
Inside the polling station, a Reuters journalist said no voters had appeared during the 20 minutes he spent there after polls officially opened.
President Kais Saied has decreed the new, mostly powerless, parliament as part of a reconfigured presidential system that he introduced after shutting down the previous parliament in 2021 and assuming broad control over the state.
Saied’s critics accuse him of seeking to dismantle the democratic system enacted after Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, which sparked the Arab Spring, and they ridiculed December’s ultra-low turnout as evidence that his changes lack popular support.
At a cafe in Ettahrir only Mongi Layouni, one of seven men sitting drinking coffee, said he might vote.
“I don’t know. Maybe I will go later,” he said. Another man sitting in the cafe, who gave his name only as Imad, said he did not believe his vote mattered after Saied’s political changes.
“The president alone is deciding everything,” he said. “He does not care about anybody and we do not care about him and his elections”.
At another polling station in the Ettadamon district, there were also few apparent voters. One, who gave his name as Ridha, said he was voting as a show of support for Saied despite the reduced role that the parliament will play.
“He is a clean man fighting a corrupt system,” he said.
The president says his actions have been legal and necessary to save Tunisia from years of economic stagnation and political crisis, and has accused his critics of treason, urging action against them.
A worsening economic crisis, that has caused shortages of some foods and medicines and led the government to seek an international bailout, has added to widespread disillusionment with politics.
On Friday Moody’s credit ratings agency downgraded Tunisian debt saying the country would likely default on sovereign loans.
Under the previous system, the parliament took the lead in choosing governments that set state policy and handled the daily running of the country. The president was only directly responsible for foreign affairs and defence.
Saied’s new rules make the parliament subservient to the president, who now takes the lead in forming or dismissing governments. The rules also reduce the role of political parties, with parliamentary candidates listed only by name without reference to their party affiliation.
Since December’s vote, state television has increased its focus on Sunday’s runoff votes including through debates between candidates. The opposition has said this is part of an effort by the state to boost turnout.
Chahed, an independent electoral monitoring group, said the level of voter participation was very low early on Sunday and said it had seen local government vehicles being used to transport some voters to polls.
Maher Jdidi, an electoral commission official, said on Shams FM radio this week that he expected turnout of between 20-30%.
Polls are open from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. (0700 GMT-1700 GMT).