A Weakened Saied Spells Trouble for Tunisia

Saturday’s poor voter turnout has cost President Kais Saied political capital at home and abroad.

By , a freelance journalist based in Tunisia.
Tunisian President Kais Saied speaks to the media after voting.
Tunisian President Kais Saied speaks to the media after voting.
Tunisian President Kais Saied speaks to the media outside a polling station in Tunis, Tunisia, after voting in the 2022 Tunisian parliamentary elections on Dec. 17. Khaled Nasraoui/picture alliance via Getty Images

Tunisian President Kais Saied’s belated response to criticism that nearly 90 percent of the country stayed home during the first round of parliamentary elections this past weekend—that it was like judging a sports match halfway through—did little to capture either the scale of the electoral disaster or its consequences.

The polls, held on Dec. 17, fell very much in the vein of catastrophe foretold, with the bulk of Tunisia’s political parties either shut out of the process or boycotting it altogether. For some, the boycott was likely an opportunity to avoid the judgment of the voters; for others, it was a principled defense of what they saw as democracy. For most, the boycott was a mixture of both.

Thus, it was left to self-funded individuals to foment some enthusiasm for—or even awareness of—the vote. That they didn’t manage to do so surprised no one. How they may do in the second, as-yet unscheduled, round remains to be seen.

Tunisian President Kais Saied’s belated response to criticism that nearly 90 percent of the country stayed home during the first round of parliamentary elections this past weekend—that it was like judging a sports match halfway through—did little to capture either the scale of the electoral disaster or its consequences.

The polls, held on Dec. 17, fell very much in the vein of catastrophe foretold, with the bulk of Tunisia’s political parties either shut out of the process or boycotting it altogether. For some, the boycott was likely an opportunity to avoid the judgment of the voters; for others, it was a principled defense of what they saw as democracy. For most, the boycott was a mixture of both.

Thus, it was left to self-funded individuals to foment some enthusiasm for—or even awareness of—the vote. That they didn’t manage to do so surprised no one. How they may do in the second, as-yet unscheduled, round remains to be seen.

Driving around to different polling places on the day of the vote, Foreign Policy met no electoral official who reported attendance even close to previous contests. One, in Rue de Marseille—like several others—had only one candidate on the ballot. Others in the working-class district of Kabaria, near the capital of Tunis, were equally quiet, with one election official telling Foreign Policy that they had no plans to vote in an election with no significance. “This is just my job,” the official said. Although not requested, Foreign Policy withheld their name out of concern that they might be subject to reprisals.

Saturday’s elections had been intended as a landmark event in Saied’s road map to building a “new republic” after two autocracies and a period of parliamentary rule—the latter of which Saied has been at pains to criticize, branding the body and its members “corrupt” and “enemies of the people.”

Since suspending the parliament in July of last year and ruling by decree, Saied has striven to enact his long-standing vision of a Tunisian utopia, where individual voices from across the country would be transmitted by reputable individuals known to their community and devoid of party allegiances to a national body in Tunis and, ultimately, the president.

In July, a year after the first parliament’s suspension, he pushed through his own constitution—a brainchild in gestation since at least 2011—before staging what he presumably intended to be the infant republic’s coronation on Saturday. However, low turnout numbers, eventually coming in at just 11.2 percent, have worked against him, providing succor to Saied’s political domestic opponents at home.

Almost immediately, the opposition group the National Salvation Front called for Saied’s resignation after what it described as a nationwide boycott of his program, arguing that voter abstention had been deliberate and essentially represented the country’s verdict on his program. However, analysts within Tunisia have claimed that the National Salvation Front’s relevance within the country is often overstated and, though it is correct to describe it as the largest opposition group, it leads in a very limited and, in the public mind, largely discredited pack.

“To be honest, I’d be surprised if the National Salvation Front could draw out any more voters than Saturday in a legislative election if they ran as a group,” said Youssef Cherif, director of the Columbia Global Centers in Tunis. “It’s true the president’s standing has taken a hit, but he’s still the most popular political figure around. What we have, really, is the less popular being criticized by the unpopular.”

However, while the National Salvation Front’s impact may be limited, the similarly negative reaction to Saturday’s vote among Tunisia’s major foreign donors is harder for Saied to ignore or explain away.

The U.S. State Department noted the poor turnout, calling on the Tunisian government—without singling out Saied specifically—to “further expand political participation” and “[adopt] inclusive and transparent reforms, including empowering an elected legislature,” a sentiment echoed by former colonial power France. The European Union—another significant donor—declined to observe the elections altogether.

Yet it is the reaction of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—seen as a signalman to donor countries that often wait on reforms agreed to with the lender of last resort before releasing funds of its own—that may prove critical for both Saied and the Tunisian people.

Ahead of Saturday’s vote, the IMF announced that it was pushing back its board meeting to sign off on Tunisia’s desperately needed bailout until January, when the country will resubmit the reforms it commits to undertake in return for a $1.9 billion rescue package. Chief among those are likely to be reforms to the country’s subsidy system, to be replaced with direct cash transfers to the needy, as well as the liberalization of much of Tunisia’s public and state-owned enterprises sector, both politically toxic areas for any politician.

With around half of Tunisia’s population reported to be living in poverty and unemployment at almost 20 percent, the need for funding has rarely been greater. Saturday’s turnout weakens Saied’s hand in negotiating painful reforms with donors as well as credibly pitching those reforms to a Tunisian public wearied by rising prices, food shortages, and the constant threat of unrest.

Sensing presidential weakness, the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), whose storied relationship with the president could fill volumes, launched a fresh broadside against Saied, calling for a national dialogue in the wake of the dire voter turnout numbers, warning, “We will not let you mess with the country, and we will not be afraid of prisons.”

As the UGTT has more than a million members and the organizational heft to bring the country to a halt, Saturday’s turnout may rob the president of the political capital he relied on to exclude the union from past involvement in devising his constitution.

With the president weakened—in international eyes if not his own—the UGTT is likely confident that it can either derail the implementation of any deal with the IMF or force the president to the table to conduct the national dialogue it has long agitated for.

However, Saied—never a man short of an invisible opponent to blame and already in lockstep with Tunisia’s security services—could reach for any number of conspiracy theories to rationalize the public rejection of what has, for him, been a long-standing personal project.

“This is where we are,” Cherif said. “We’re heading into January, typically the month when Tunisians take to the street to voice their protest. There are gaps in the shelves, prices are going up, and we’ve just seen elections where hardly anyone voted. Moreover, the opposition is the same group that the people cheered when they were disbanded. The president remains relatively popular … but this is a dangerous time.”

Simon Speakman Cordall is a freelance journalist based in Tunisia. Twitter: @IgnitionUK

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