Many choices but few solutions ahead of Tunisia’s parliamentary race

Sensing the danger, Ennahda pledged its support for Saied, a candidate whom Islamists can control if they win enough seats in parliament to have a major say in how the country is run.
Thursday 26/09/2019
Tunisians consult lists of candidates for the upcoming legislative elections in Tunis. (AFP)
At cross purposes. Tunisians consult lists of candidates for the upcoming legislative elections in Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS - Hardly has the outcome of a legislative election been as uncertain as it is in Tunisia. Just weeks after the first round of presidential polls, Tunisia’s 7 million registered voters are scrutinising hundreds of legislative lists, including thousands of candidates who are seeking office.

The official campaign period for Tunisia’s legislative election began September 14 and will run until October 5, after which there is a one-day blackout before the vote.

As campaigning gears up, candidates are working to reach voters on social media and in person, going door to door, distributing fliers, canvassing markets, setting up tents in strategic locations and organising debates with opponents.

Experts and analysts said legislative elections are critical for Tunisians to make their voices heard in a contest that helps determine the country’s future political landscape. For many citizens, however, growing disillusionment with politics could lead them to vote for non-traditional lists or stay home.

“As we talked to people and potential voters, we recorded a deep-running discontent on the ground, especially when it comes to political parties, notably Tahya Tounes and Ennahda,” said political activist Yasmine Ben Salem, who has worked in large districts in the capital such as Ariana, Tunis 1, Tunis 2 and Manouba.

“Most people we talked with favour voting either for independent lists or Qalb Tounes,” a party founded in June by media mogul and presidential candidate Nabil Karoui, she said.

Ben Salem said voters’ moods heading into legislative elections were likely informed by the outcome of the presidential poll, which saw two outsiders, constitutional law professor Kais Saied and Karoui, who remains in jail on charges of money laundering, advance to a runoff.

The two anti-establishment candidates’ victories have been attributed to a growing distrust of Tunisia’s political elite, deepened by high unemployment, rising cost of living, widespread voter apathy, especially among youth and a last-minute change in the electoral calendar that expedited the polls.

Tunisia’s unemployment rate stands at 15% and the cost of living has risen by nearly one-third since 2016.

Tunisians voted in relatively low numbers for the first round of presidential elections September 15, 45% compared to 64% in 2014. Bin Salem said such a high degree of voter apathy could “usher" a second earthquake in the country, sidelining both Islamists and centrists in parliament.”

“Echoing a tendency that marked the first round of the presidential elections, we are increasingly hearing of a so-called anti-system vote that would help the future president, either Saied or Karoui, garner enough support in parliament to counter opposition,” she said.

Beyond the anti-system vote, the election could be rattled by the incredibly high number of electoral lists on offer. Some 1,300 lists are competing for 27 constituencies, while 165 lists are campaigning for constituencies abroad. These numbers could prove overwhelming for voters, leading many to worry about “blind votes.”

"Only in the Tunis 1 constituency, where I'm supposed to vote, we have 49 lists,” said Cyrine Khalfallah, a 28-year-old company worker. “How am I supposed to check out all the lists and decide which candidates can represent me best?"

Abir Chihi, a 30-year-old housewife, agreed: "I'm quite sure that the majority will vote blindly,” she said. “No one can scrutinise dozens of lists and hundreds of candidates."

"However, I'm especially concerned when it comes to independent lists. Most of the independent lists are suspected of being endorsed by Islamists or corrupt businessmen, who are struggling to make a political comeback after their failure in presidential elections," Chihi added.

In Tunisia, parliament is afforded more power than the executive branch, making control of the body central to parties’ efforts to advance their agendas.

Whichever party or coalition comes out ahead in the upcoming poll will have a major role in setting the agenda and defining the country’s political landscape over the next 5 years.

This is why major political parties snubbed by voters in the presidential poll, including the Islamist Ennahda Movement, are putting renewed efforts in the legislative race, attempting to shore up as many seats as possible.

However, with many Tunisians set on punishing the “system,” the political map is expected to end up far more fragmented than in 2014, when it was dominated by the secularist Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda.

Saied, who has portrayed himself as an anti-establishment figure seeking a return to the principles of the revolution, has played off this mentality. The presidential front-runner has also furthered discussion about decentralisation and “liquid democracy” amid similar currents in Egypt and Algeria.

In Egypt, businessman turned regime critic Mohammed Ali recently sparked a protest movement against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi when he urged citizens to raise their voice against corruption. In Algeria, similar ideals to Saied’s are being held up by demonstrators seeking a total overhaul of a system they believe is rigged against them.

In Tunisia, Saied’s calls for delegative democracy, especially, are gaining traction, with supporters arguing that it allows them to better advocate for their respective interests.

This system, they say, would allow citizens to vote directly on policy issues, delegate votes on policy areas to representatives, delegate votes to specific individuals and discard the system if they feel it is ineffective.

Sensing the danger that such a trend could represent for its future on the political scene, Ennahda pledged September 19 its support for Saied, an independent candidate whom Islamists can control if they win enough seats in parliament to have a major say in how the country is run.

By supporting Saied, who is socially conservative and appeals to even radical fringes of Tunisian society, including the Salafist party Hizb ut-Tahrir, which advocates for the introduction of sharia, Ennahda hopes to placate its base.

The party also has little choice after suffering a heavy blow in the presidential election. Its candidate, Interim Parliament Speaker Abdelfattah Mourou finished third with 12.9% of the vote.

Ennahda’s decline, bolstered by successive government failures and internal feuding over its direction, has been long in the making, argued political scientist Hamza Meddeb in a recent report.

By participating in the coalition formed after 2014 and “acquiescing to neoliberal economic policies” that did not lower unemployment or prices, Ennahda “lost its ability to activate socioeconomic reform and anti-corruption arguments to rebuild its legitimacy and support base,” Meddeb said in a report for Carnegie Middle East Centre published in early September.

Ennahda’s decline was further evidenced by recent high-level resignations, as well as rare public displays of disagreement within a party that is usually highly structured.

Lotfi Zitoun, an adviser to Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi, announced his resignation in July because of strategic differences.

Zoubeir Shehoudi, former chief of staff of Ghannouchi, resigned around the same time, lamenting that Ennahda "has become incapable of finding social and economic solutions” to Tunisia’s problems.

With concerns growing that Ennahda is losing influence, Ghannouchi has called for voters to turn out for the legislative race.

“The risk that voters reinforce the first-round anti-system choices is real,” Ben Salem said. “Among the traditional political parties in the country, Ennahda is particularly in the crosshairs as there is a mounting antagonism with its leadership and all those who were elected as representatives in the 2014 legislative polls.”

Ennahda is not the only party to feel the election blow or risk a broader decline.

All parties and candidates at the forefront of the political scene, including Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and Defence Minister Abdelkerim Zbidi, were jolted by the results. They are scrambling to come up with an effective strategy to regain lost territory in the parliamentary race.

Chahed, reeling from an especially poor showing in the presidential election, urged Tunisia’s centrist, modernist camp to unify ahead of the legislative elections. Zbidi snubbed the call, telling his supporters to vote only for lists endorsed by political parties and figures who threw their weight behind his candidacy.

If the infighting continues, Tunisia’s democrats could fail to secure enough seats to allow them a significant voice in parliamentary affairs over the next five years.