Tunisia voters shun upcoming elections

Experts say low voter registration ahead of presidential and parliamentary polls reflects Tunisia’s ‘political fatigue’.

Presidential candidate Beji Caid Essebsi said that low voter registration could affect the election's credibility [AFP]

Tunis, Tunisia  Rania Jasmine has no plans to vote in Tunisia’s upcoming parliamentary and first-ever presidential elections. “I don’t want to vote because I don’t trust any political party,” the 24-year-old university student, studying English literature and linguistics, told Al Jazeera.

While she voted for the moderate Islamist party Ennahda in the previous elections, she said she was disappointed by the party’s performance. “[Ennahda] really disappointed me before as they were not the ones who were actually running the country,” Jasmine said.

“They were [too] afraid of the opposition. So I prefer not to regret my choice again like the first time I voted.”

After Tunisians toppled the 23-year presidency of strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country held its first democratic elections in October 2011 to form the Constituent Assembly, a temporary government put in place to run the country until this year’s elections.

The Constituent Assembly had been dominated by Ennahda, which formed a coalition with both the centre-left Congress for the Republic, and left-leaning Ittakol parties. However, Ennahda resigned from the government earlier this year following a political crisis triggered by the assassination of two leading opposition politicians.

This year’s parliamentary polls is scheduled for October 26 while the presidential election is slated for November 23, a second round of presidential voting has been set for December 28.

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Despite widespread support for the revolution, Jasmine is one of many Tunisians who told Al Jazeera that they have low expectations for the upcoming elections, which will determine the government for the next five years.

Hamza Zaghoud, a 25-year-old translator from Al-Kaf, also planned to boycott the elections. “I think all of the political parties are way too similar,” he told Al Jazeera. “I don’t feel represented by any of them. In general, there is not enough push for personal freedoms,” adding that Tunisia’s youth “are not represented enough” by post-revolutionary politicians.

Ahead of the 2011 elections for the Constituent Assembly, voter registration brought out around 50 percent of the country’s eight million eligible voters. Yet, of the remaining four million who didn’t register three years ago, just over 760,000 registered by the time the first registration period concluded on July 29.

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Citing this low voter turnout, Tunisian authorities announced a second registration period to last from August 5 to 26, local media reported.

Aymen Abderrahmen, a graduate student in international relations in Tunis, said it was “very unlikely” that he wuld cast a ballot, though he had yet to make his final decision. “It seems to me that we’ve been concerned about elections and all tools to reach democracy, rather than democracy itself,” he told Al Jazeera.

But not everyone has shunned the elections.

Ayman Mubaraki, a 31-year-old political cartoonist from Tunis, the capital, said he had yet to decide which party he would vote for, but stressed the importance of casting a ballot. “The elections are very important, particularly when we compare our situation with other Arab countries,” he told Al Jazeera. “They can show that it can work for other [countries] if it works in Tunisia. The results don’t matter as much as the fact that it gets done.”

Any new government “will enact its programmes and legislation, but I have much more faith in the citizens and young people,” Mubaraki added. “The young people will make it work if they have employment, good infrastructure, [and] education … because now the [economy] is only tourism.”

Souhayel Hedfi, vice president of JID-Tunisie (Independent Young Democrats of Tunisia), a non-profit organisation that advocates for democratic participation, argued that voter registration experienced a sharp uptick following an attack that killed 15 soldiers in mid-July, adding that the declining the national security has become a central issue for voters.

As of July 10, the number of registered voters hovered around only 149,000, according to the Independent High Authority for Elections in Tunisia, “but after the killings of soldiers in Chaambi many more people registered … and that is a good thing”, Hedfi said.

“It is sad that it took the killings to make people aware of the country’s very difficult situation and the need for voting,” he told Al Jazeera. “It shows that the parties who won the last elections weren’t effective in handling the terrorist threat.” Hedfi added that the low turnout reflects “political fatigue” and “a lot of frustration”.

“We were all very enthusiastic ahead of the 2011 elections, but we’ve seen how security and the economy have gotten worse,” he said. “And of course the real test isn’t how many people register so much as how many actually vote this fall.”

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Nizar Rejeb, 34, a professor of tourism at Carthage University in Tunis, said he is considering voting for the Green Party. “It is very difficult to decide,” he said, pointing to the dozens of political parties now in existence which were either banned or not yet created during the time of Ben Ali’s regime.


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“Someone should make a stand-up comedy about how fast the political parties are changing their names and programmes,” Rejeb told Al Jazeera. The parties “fuse with other parties and politicians … and the issue is that they change ideological camps, also. If you supported a party three years ago, their name and views may be impossible to recognise [today].”

According to Human Rights Watch, Tunisians have experienced widespread political exhaustion as a result of a struggling post-revolutionary economy and more than three years of political turmoil, including political assassinations that killed two major opposition figures, popular left-wing politician Shokri Belaid and progressive leader Mohamed Brahimi.

A 2014 HRW country profile noted that their assassinations “caused widespread shock and sparked a political crisis that saw the [National Constituent Assembly] suspended for two months”. The report further added that since the revolution the progress in human rights has been “hampered” by “the delay in adopting a new constitution consistent with international human rights law and standards, the retention of the former regime’s repressive legal arsenal, and attempts by the executive branch to control media and prosecute speech offences”.

Tunisia’s current interim president, Mohammad Moncef Marzouki, who was appointed by a transition government after the revolution, plans to put forward his candidacy for president. Among his opponents is Beji Caid Essebsi, an 87-year-old ex-premier from the secular Nidaa Tounes party.

Often criticised for having served in several ministerial positions under the Ben Ali regime, Essebsi claimed that the low registration turnout could affect the election’s credibility. “We had hoped to increase the enrolment to give everyone a chance,” he told the local Tunisia Live news organisation.

It remains unclear whether Ennahda will put forward a contender for president. Citing pervasive political divisions, senior party member Ali Larayedh recently said Ennahda “will not necessarily put forward a candidate”

Follow Patrick O Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera