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A farce election pushes Tunisia toward one-man rule

Tonhe finally Voters in La Goulette, a suburb of the Tunisian capital, had to choose a representative in parliament, a complex choice. No fewer than 56 political parties fielded candidates for their constituencies. In Tunisia’s parliamentary elections on December 17, their performance was lighter: only one candidate was on the ballot. It’s hard to imagine that with the election results coming in, there’s a lot of suspense at his campaign headquarters.

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It was the culmination of a 17-month power grab led by the country’s authoritarian President Kath Saeed. In July 2021, he suspended much of the constitution and sent troops to seal the gates of parliament; he later dismissed its members. He continued to fire judges; install loyalists in key institutions, including the electoral commission; and harass and arrest critics. This summer he hastily pushed through constitutional changes to weaken parliament.

Ironically, 12 years later, street vendor Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest of extortion by the local police. His death ignited the overthrow of longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the creation of a flawed but genuine democracy in Tunisia, and a more general Arab crisis. spring.

By the time Mr Saied was elected in 2019, many Tunisians had come to despair of their post-revolutionary politicians, who seemed more interested in fighting each other than fixing problems. The President made good on his promise to change the political system. Yet he has done little to address the economic chaos that has fueled so much public anger that could soon be directed at him.

Mr Saeed, who blames much of the impasse on political parties, has sought to reduce their role in this election: Party symbols, for example, are not shown on ballot papers next to candidates’ names. The major parties decided to boycott the vote, leaving only 1,058 candidates eligible to contest the 161 seats.

In addition to La Goulette, nine other regions also held individual races. Elsewhere, the choice is even simpler: seven of the ten constituencies representing the diaspora have no candidates. The Tunisian embassy in London didn’t bother to open polling stations because there was no one to vote.

Even where competition is fierce, candidates are often nobodies. The party boycott left a motley assortment of individual candidates — anyone who could gather 400 signatures and self-finance a short-term campaign. Many Tunisians do not know who is voting. The electoral commission eventually put a picture next to each candidate (rarely her) name: voters could choose the candidate with the best haircut, rather than vote for a party.

Unsurprisingly, turnout was low, with only about 800,000 of the country’s 9 million registered voters willing to show up. Mr Saeed had promised that the new parliament, freed from party politics, would be the most democratic in Tunisian history. Instead, he installed a legislature elected by less than 9 percent of the electorate.

The opposition Salvation Front quickly called for protests calling for Saeed to step down. The same goes for Abir Moussi, who is running against Mr Saied in the 2019 presidential election. The front includes Ennahda, an Islamist party that has been a powerful force in Tunisian democracy, while Ms Moussi is a staunch anti-Islamist and self-proclaimed admirer of the deposed dictatorship. That ideological opposition finds itself aligned with Mr Saeed says a lot about his declining popularity.

At first, his self-coup in 2021 found broad support from a frustrated public. Polls put him above 80%, unprecedented for a Tunisian president (or, indeed, for most politicians). But his popularity was short-lived. The official turnout for the constitutional referendum in July was just 30%, a figure that many believe is inflated. His poll numbers have been sliding. Few Tunisians attended the rally in support of Saeed.

There is little optimism about how Mr Saeed’s government and his new rubber-stamp parliament will turn the economy around. The diagnosis has not changed much: Tunisia is not productive. It has a bloated public sector and one of the highest wage bills in the world (18% of total wages gross domestic product). State-owned enterprises are not competitive. Decades of underinvestment in the poorer south and west has left those regions far behind the capital, Tunisia.

However, symptoms can worsen if the underlying cause does not change. With the economy shrinking by nearly 9% in 2020, growth remains subdued. Soaring food and energy prices this summer have sparked a balance-of-payments crisis, with shortages of sugar, butter, cooking oil and other staples amid reduced port imports. Even bottled water is rationed. Annual inflation jumped to 9.8% in November. This is a truly unhealthy democracy declaring that voter turnout is below its inflation rate.

Until now, what has saved Mr Syed has been indifference. If he can’t organize large rallies, neither can the opposition: most Tunisians are too sick of politics (and too busy surviving) to take to the streets to protest.

But Mr Syed cannot expect the public to remain silent forever. debt-gross domestic product A figure of around 90% looks ominous.a promising deal International Monetary Fund remains stagnant, partly due to UGTT, powerful unions. There could be more shortages and price increases next year — and perhaps protests. Mr Saeed has done a lot to restore Tunisia to one-man rule. However, his neglect of the economy means he probably won’t keep that guy around for long.

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