Tunisia expects languid elections for an impotent parliament

Tunisians go to the polls on Saturday to elect a largely depowered parliament under a hyper-presidential system installed by head of state Kais Saied after he took power last year.

More than a decade since Tunisia’s popular revolution ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, opposition parties have called for a boycott of the vote, which they say is part of a “coup”. against the only democracy that emerged from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

The election for the new 161-seat assembly comes after President Saied froze the previous legislature on July 25 last year, following months of political crisis exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

He later dissolved the parliament, which had long been dominated by his nemesis, the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party.

On Wednesday, Saied defended his decision, saying that “the Tunisian people, everywhere I went, they were all calling for the dissolution of parliament.”

“The country was on the brink of civil war,” he told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington.

The previous legislature had far-reaching powers, in the mixed presidential-parliamentary system enshrined in the North African country’s post-revolutionary constitution.

Last July, Saied used a widely rejected referendum to push through a new constitution, stripping parliament of any real influence and giving his own office almost unlimited powers.

The legal expert who oversaw its drafting said the version published by Saied had been altered in a way that could lead to a “dictatorial regime”. Saied later published a slightly modified draft.

– “Parliament of the rump” –

Analyst Hamadi Redissi said the purpose of Saturday’s polls was to “complete the process that started on July 25” last year.

The resulting parliament “will not have many powers: it will not be able to appoint a government or censure it, except under draconian conditions that are almost impossible to meet.”

Saied’s new system essentially eliminates political parties and electoral lists, meaning candidates will be elected as individuals with no declared affiliation.

It is expected that the final composition of the assembly will not be determined until March of next year, once any run-off has been completed.

The vote is intended to “increase the legitimacy of the presidency,” Redissi said, adding that the result would be “a rump parliament without powers.”

Almost all of the country’s political parties, including Ennahdha, have said they will boycott the vote, calling Saied’s moves a “coup”.

The head of the National Salvation Front, the main opposition alliance that includes Ennahdha, said the bloc would not recognize the results.

READ ALSO: Tunisia approves new constitution in vote with low turnout

The election “will further plunge the country into a political crisis,” Ahmed Nejib Chebbi told reporters in Tunis on Thursday.

He also expressed alarm at the postponement of a critical meeting of the International Monetary Fund next Monday, in which the Washington-based lender was to decide on a rescue package for the deeply indebted North African country.

The delay “threatens the country’s economic balance,” he said.

The powerful UGTT trade union federation, which did not openly oppose the initial takeover, has called the poll meaningless.

Most of the 1,058 candidates are unknown.

The Tunisian Observatory for Democratic Transition says 26 percent are teachers, and another 22 are mid-level civil servants.

The electoral result will mean a decrease in the representation of women, with only 122 candidates.

– Tunisia: “from bad to worse” –

Few of the country’s nine million registered voters are expected to attend.

Several young people told AFP they had little interest in the election or wanted to know more about the candidates.

Marwa Ben Miled, a 53-year-old shopkeeper, told AFP the country was “going from bad to worse”.

“What happens on the political scene no longer interests me,” he said. “I don’t trust anyone.”

Saied’s election law prohibits candidates from speaking to the foreign press, a stance the North African Foreign Correspondents’ Club said would make it harder for journalists to do their jobs.

READ ALSO: Tunisian police block protest against President Kais Saied’s referendum

Saied has made several public appearances, meeting with traders in Tunis’ Old City market ahead of the vote.

Some social media users have posted satirical images ridiculing the vote.

In one video, a mock candidate appears holding a cigar and smelling a bouquet of jasmine, before making a donation to a pair of musicians who then shout pro-Saied slogans.

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