Tunisia’s independents, Islamists come ahead in low turnout vote

Most voters were aged 40-65 and younger people did not show at the polls.
Tuesday 08/05/2018
The young were missing. Tunisian voters stand in a queue at a polling station in Kasserine in central Tunisia, on May 6. (AFP)
The young were missing. Tunisian voters stand in a queue at a polling station in Kasserine in central Tunisia, on May 6. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda came ahead of its secular rivals in the May 6 municipal elections but low turnout showed widespread frustration about both the Islamists and the main ruling party, Nidaa Tounes.

According to preliminary estimates, Islamists finished second to independent slates, which claimed 505,000. Ennahda totalled 495,000 votes while Nidaa Tounes had 404,000.

Opinion polling firm Sigma Conseil’s outcome projections showed Ennahda gaining 27.5% of the vote, Nidaa Tounes 22.5%, leftist Popular Front 5.3% and centre-left Democratic Current 4.9%. Official results are expected May 9.

Leading parties appeared to agree with projections saying returns from the polling stations by their observers were confirmed by their own estimates.

Both Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes had substantially lower showings than in the 2014 election. Ennahda gained less than half the votes it won in 2014 and Nidaa Tounes saw a drop of two-thirds from its 1.3 million votes in the previous election.

Much of the raw vote difference could be linked to turnout, which was 68.3% (3.4 million voters) in 2014 and 34.4% (1.7 million voters) this year.

With an image of chronic internecine conflicts, Nidaa Tounes was no match to Ennahda’s ability to get out the vote despite general disillusionment of the public about the electoral process.

An extreme case of voter concern with the status quo was in the small southern town of Bordj el-Khadra where none of the 22 voters participated to signal their unhappiness about the lack of improvement in living conditions.

Votes in main cities 

Among main Tunisian cities, Tunis had the lowest turnout (26%) while the coastal city of Monastir, hometown of late President Habib Bourguiba, showed the highest turnout (46%) and gave the lead to Nidaa Tounes in the vote outcome.

There were complaints of voting irregularities in several towns, including alleged attempts at influencing voters and distributing bribes. However, the Independent High Authority for the Elections officials said abuses were not significant enough to affect election results.

Observers said the apathy of younger Tunisians was evident across the country. Most voters were aged 40-65 and younger people did not show at the polls.

The Tunisian Navy stopped 210 young Tunisians attempting to sail illegally to Italy on two makeshift boats on the eve of the elections.

“They deceived me two times since 2011. They had showed what their promises are worth. I will not enter a polling station again,” said Kamel Hafnaoui, 26, an unemployed university graduate in the Dar Fadhal working class district in Tunis.

Ennahda led other lists in Tunis, the southern coastal town of Sfax, Bizerte and Beja in the north and the mining region of Gafsa, the oil-producing region Tataouine and Kebili area in the south, estimates indicated.

Nidaa Tounes won in the coastal regions of Sousse, Monastir and Mahdia.

Nidaa Tounes, founded by President Beji Caid Essebsi as a counterweight to the Islamists, saw its support decline since it emerged as the leading party in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2014.

“We are celebrating democracy,” Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi said on state television as he led party celebrations. He played down the stakes in the vote. “The election was about selecting people to serve their fellow citizens in their towns and villages,” he said.

Peaceful elections four times since 2011

Many liberals and secularists do not trust Ennahda and worry the Islamists will use their role in local governments to expand their power and repeat the experience of the Islamists in Turkey, whose leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched his political career as a mayor before becoming president.

In a sign of how emboldened Ennahda leaders are, Ghannouchi has been hinting that he might run in the 2019 presidential elections.

Analysts said the fact that Tunisia has held peaceful elections four times since 2011 was a very positive sign.

More than 57,000 candidates, half of them women and young people, ran for office in 350 municipalities.

About 60,000 policemen and army soldiers were deployed to guard the polls, while Tunisia remains under a state of emergency, imposed in 2015 after a string of terrorist attacks.

“Tunisia continues with success on its path to be in the same league with democratic countries and break from all kinds of clashes and confrontations… about who is entitled to win power and take charge of running the state affairs,” said columnist Khaled Haddad, in the main daily Al Chourouk.