Tunisia's Islamists projected thin lead in fractured parliament

Ennahda's projected vote would translate into only about 40 seats, with 109 needed to form a majority.
Sunday 06/10/2019
Election officials count marked ballots after polling stations closed in parliamentary election in Tunis, Tunisia, Oct. 6, 2019. (AP)
Fractured parliament. Election officials count marked ballots after polling stations closed in parliamentary election in Tunis, Tunisia, Oct. 6, 2019. (AP)

TUNIS - Tunisia's Ennahda Islamist party was projected tonight to win most votes in the parliamentary elections held Sunday, according to exit polls.

The Islamist party is trailed by rival Qalb Tounes party which is headed by jailed businessman-turned politician Nabil Karoui, exit polls by local pollster Sigma Conseil showed.

"Ennahda is expected to win 17.5% of the votes in the elections followed by Qalb Tounes with 15.6%," Sigma Conseil manager Wassim Hamida told state television.

Ennahda and Qalb Tounes both had claimed victory.
The two rival parties were followed by the staunch anti-Islamist Free Destourian Party with 6.8% of expected votes and the radical Islamists of Karama Alliance with 6.1% and centre-left Democratic Current party getting 5.1%.

The outcome could herald troubles for Tunisia's political stability as Ennahda and Qalb Tounes have ruled out forming a coalition government leaving the landscape more polarised in the face of a tough economic situation marked by high unemployment and economic slowdown.

The legislative projections constitute a huge setback for traditional leftists and centrists, especially for Nidaa Tounes whose founder Beji Caid Essebsi passed away a few weeks ago. 

The legislative vote comes ahead of the second round of the presidential elections scheduled for October 13 and in which Nabil Karoui leader of Qalb Tounes will compete  against frontrunner Kais Saied, a conservative jurist backed by Ennahda and by various fringe formations, including ultraconservatives and neo communists.

If confirmed, the result would leave Tunisia with a deeply fractured parliament in which Ennahda would need to join together with numerous rival parties and independents to gain a working majority.

Karoui was arrested in August on charges of money laundering and tax fraud, which he denies, and has contested the election from a jail cell pending his trial.

Any new government will face the same challenges that have bedevilled its predecessors - high unemployment, inflation and public debt, a powerful union that resists change and foreign lenders who demand it.

However, Ennahda's projected vote share would translate into only about 40 seats, with 109 needed to form a majority. In the last election in 2014, it gained 27.8% of the votes and 69 seats, while the winner, Nidaa Tounes, took 37.6% and 86 seats.

They later joined together in coalition. Any such coalition building this time will likely prove a far more daunting and prolonged process, despite the need to urgently address economic problems that remain unsolved eight years after the revolution.

Ennahda now has two months from the election to create a coalition before the president can ask another party to begin negotiations to form a government. If that fails, the election will be held again.

The failure of repeated coalition governments that grouped the old secular elite plus Ennahda to address the economy, along with declining public services has dismayed many Tunisians.

Unemployment, 15% nationally and 30% in some cities, is higher than it was under the former authoritarian president  Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who died last month in exile in Saudi Arabia.

"Tunisians should be proud for their democracy but the focus should be on economic and social conditions of Tunisians," Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi told Reuters after voting in Tunis.

Turnout in the legislative election was only 41%, the country’s independent electoral commission said, with many voters annoyed by years of ineffective coalitions that have been unable to address chronic economic problems.

(With news agencies)