AP

Low turnout in Tunisia parliament vote amid economic vows

Dec 16, 2022, 11:41 AM | Updated: Dec 17, 2022, 12:44 pm

A man drives a car in a damaged street of La Marsa, outside Tunis, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. To out...

A man drives a car in a damaged street of La Marsa, outside Tunis, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. To outsiders, Tunisia’s legislative elections Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022 look questionable: Many opposition parties are boycotting. A new electoral law makes it harder for women to compete. Foreign media aren’t allowed to talk to candidates. But many voters believe that their country’s decade-old democratic revolution has failed, and welcome their increasingly autocratic president’s political reforms. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

(AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisians on Saturday voted to elect a new parliament, to the backdrop of a soaring cost-of-living crisis and concerns of democracy backsliding in the North African country — the cradle of Arab Spring protests a decade ago.

Opposition parties — including the Salvation Front coalition that the popular Ennahda party is part of — boycotted the polls because they say the vote is part of President Kais Saied’s efforts to consolidate power. The decision to boycott will likely lead to the next legislature being subservient to the president, whom critics accuse of authoritarian drift.

After the polls closed at 6 p.m. (1700 GMT), the voter turnout appeared lower than in previous legislative elections in 2014 and 2019. Associated Press reporters observed deserted polling stations during Saturday’s balloting – although they also saw people queuing outside several polling places around the capital, Tunis.

Farouk Bouaskar, president of Tunisia’s Election Authority, said Saturday night that the turnout was astonishingly low and stood at 8.8 percent. Of 9 million registered voters, only some 800,000 cast ballots, Bouaskar said.

“It’s really a stretch to call what occurred today an election,” said Saida Ounissi, a former member of the parliament that the president dissolved in March after years of political deadlock and economic stagnation.

Ounissi, who also served as minister and was elected in two previous elections to the legislature on the Ennahda party list, acknowledged that she was “a bit bitter” at the political situation as the country faced an unprecedent financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from the war in Ukraine.

“People were very angry at the parliament because of the deteriorating economy that is due to various crisis, and the president capitalized on that anger to crush the parliament, stifle democracy and seize more power,” Ounissi said.

Parliament last met in July 2021. Since then, Saied, who was elected in 2019 and still enjoys the backing of more than half of the electorate, has also curbed the independence of the judiciary and weakened parliament’s powers.

In a referendum in July, Tunisians approved a constitution that hands broad executive powers to the president. Saied, who spearheaded the project and wrote the text himself, made full use of the mandate in September, changing the electoral law to diminish the role of political parties.

The new law reduces the number of member of the lower house of parliament from 217 to 161, who are now to be elected directly instead of via a party list. And lawmakers who “do not fulfil their roles” can be removed if 10% of their constituents lodge a formal request.

Critics say the electoral law reforms have hit women particularly hard. Only 127 women are among the 1,055 candidates running in Saturday’s election.

Saied’s critics accuse him of endangering the democratic process. But many others believe that scrapping the party lists puts individuals ahead of political parties and will improve elected officials’ accountability. They are exasperated with political elites, welcome their increasingly autocratic president’s political reforms and see the vote for a new parliament as a chance to solve their dire economic crisis.

Saied and his wife, Ichraf Chebil, cast their ballots in Ennasr, an upscale suburb north of Tunis on Saturday morning. He called on citizens to vote “with your hearts and your consciousness to reclaim your legitimate rights to justice and freedom.” He also warned against supporting those he claimed had abused power and “depleted the country of valuable resources after bribing people to elect them under the old electoral law.”

The Tunisian government is deeply indebted and chronically short of funds to pay for badly needed food and energy. Food prices have soared over the past months and shortages of basic staples like sugar, vegetable oil, rice, milk and even bottled water have threatened to turn simmering discontent into larger turmoil.

Many believe their country’s decade-old democratic revolution has failed, a decade after Tunisia was the only nation to emerge from the Arab Spring protests with a democratic government.

Hédia Sekhiri, a retired private sector worker, said she came out to vote to set an example for young people. “It’s my duty as a citizen … to build a better future for our country,” Sekhiri said.

Amor Hamad, a 58-year-old engineer in Tunis, said he hopes his vote will “contribute to the evolution of the country in the right direction and put an end to 10 years of disastrous leadership by successive governments since the 2011 revolution.”

The vote comes on the 12th anniversary of the event that sparked the Arab Spring — when a Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire because of the dire economic situation under the long-time strongman rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Bouazizi died weeks later. His act of desperation prompted protests that led to the dictator’s ouster and provoked similar uprisings around the Arab world.

___

Surk contributed from Nice, France.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Image:The New York Giants' Willie Mays poses for a photo during baseball spring training in 1972. M...

Associated Press

Willie Mays, Giants’ electrifying ‘Say Hey Kid,’ dies at 93

Willie Mays, whose singular combination of talent, drive and exuberance made him one of baseball’s greatest players, has died. He was 93.

16 hours ago

Image: This photo provided by the Washington Department of Ecology shows a derailed BNSF train on t...

Associated Press

Judge orders BNSF to pay Washington tribe nearly $400M for trespassing with oil trains

BNSF Railway must pay the sum to a Native American tribe in Washington after it ran 100-car trains with crude oil on the tribe's reservation.

2 days ago

Photo: In this photo provided by Tieanna Joseph Cade, an amusement park ride is shown stuck with 30...

Associated Press

Crews rescue 28 people trapped upside down high on Oregon amusement park ride

Emergency crews in Oregon rescued 28 people after they were stuck dangling upside down high on a ride at a century-old amusement park.

2 days ago

juneteenth shooting texas...

Associated Press

2 killed and 6 wounded in shooting during a Juneteenth celebration in a Texas park

A shooting in a Texas park left two people dead and six wounded, including two children, on Saturday, authorities said.

3 days ago

Photo: Israeli soldiers drive a tank near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, Wednesday, J...

Jack Jeffery, The Associated Press

8 Israeli soldiers killed in southern Gaza in deadliest attack on Israeli forces in months

An explosion in Gaza killed eight Israeli soldiers, the military said Saturday, making it the deadliest attack on Israeli forces in months.

4 days ago

Juanita Beach Kirkland...

Kathy McCormack and Nick Perry, The Associated Press

‘Tis the season for swimming and bacteria alerts in lakes, rivers

With summer about to start, many people flocking to their favorite swimming holes may also want to read up on bacteria warnings.

5 days ago

Low turnout in Tunisia parliament vote amid economic vows