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Tunisian polling stations largely quiet in parliamentary election


TUNIS (Reuters) -Tunisians showed little inclination to vote on Saturday morning in a parliamentary election that most political parties are boycotting, having denounced it as the culmination of a march to one-man rule by President Kais Saied.

Polls opened on Saturday (December 17) in a Tunisian parliamentary election that will tighten President Kais Saied’s grip on power, capping what his opponents denounce as a march to one-man rule over a country that shook off dictatorship in 2011.

Taking place 12 years to the day after Tunisian vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in an act of protest that sparked the Arab Spring, the election will vote in a new parliament whose lawmakers are likely to have little influence on government policy.

Turnout in most previous elections since the 2011 revolution, which shook off a dictatorship and ushered in democracy, seemed higher than on Saturday, when few Tunisians were visible at polling stations in the capital.

Reuters visited six polling stations around Tunis that were all largely quiet. During a two-hour period split between three in the Ettadamon and Ettahir districts, a journalist from the agency saw only about 20 voters cast their ballots.

The official electoral commission, whose members are appointed by Saied, said about 270,000 – or 3% – of 9 million eligible voters had cast ballots by 10 a.m. (0900 GMT), two hours after polling stations opened.

As he voted earlier, Saied hailed the election as a historic day and urged Tunisians to cast ballots. But as they struggle with economic hardship, many have grown jaded by years of political dysfunction.

“Why should I vote? … I am not convinced by this election,” said Abdl Hamid Naji, sitting in a cafe near a polling station in the Lafayette neighbourhood of the capital Tunis as it opened at 8:00 a.m. (0700 GMT).

“What will this parliament do?” he asked. “In the previous elections, I was the first to arrive… But now I’m not interested.”

There were more journalists than voters at the Rue de Marseille polling station in Tunis, which has been packed from early in the day in previous elections.

Faouzi Ayarai, who did vote there, was optimistic. “These elections are an opportunity to fix the bad situation left by others over the past years,” she said.

Saied, a former law lecturer who was a political independent when elected president in 2019, shut down the previous parliament and started ruling by decree in July 2021, gradually amassing more and more power.

His opponents, including the Islamist Ennahda party, accuse him of a coup.

A new constitution, passed with a low turnout in a July referendum, has defanged parliament and shifted power back to the presidential palace in Carthage from which Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali ruled with an iron fist before being ousted in 2011.

Nejib Chebbi, head of an anti-Saied coalition including the Islamist Ennahda party, a major force in the previous parliament, has labelled the election a “still-born farce”.

Saied has described it as part of a roadmap for ending the chaos and corruption he says afflicted Tunisia under the previous system.

Casting his vote with his wife, he urged Tunisians to do likewise. “It is your historic opportunity to regain your legitimate rights,” he said.

But I Watch, a non-governmental watchdog organisation formed after the 2011 revolution, said the new parliament had been “emptied of all powers”.

Al Bawsala, another NGO that has monitored the work of parliament since the revolution, has said it will boycott a legislature that it too believes will be an instrument for the president.

The election is taking place against the backdrop of an economic crisis that is fuelling poverty, leading many to attempt the perilous journey to Europe aboard smugglers’ boats.

With the main parties absent, a total of 1,058 candidates – only 120 of them women – are running for 161 seats.

For 10 of those – seven in Tunisia and three decided by expatriate voters – there is just one candidate. A further seven of the seats decided by expatriate voters have no candidates running at all.

The polls are due to close at 6 p.m. (1700 GMT).