Next Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Tunisia could spell defeat for the Islamist Ennahda Party and the rise of the populist Qalb Tunis Party, according to unpublished opinion polls.
Tunisian voters will head to the polls on 6 October to elect their new parliament, three weeks after voting in the first round of early presidential elections on 15 September.
The second round of the presidential elections will follow one week after next Sunday’s parliamentary polls on 13 October, thereby completing a four-week cycle of voting and predictably giving rise to voting fatigue.
The small North African country, viewed as the only democracy in the Arab world, has seven million registered voters. They will elect 217 MPs from 15,000 candidates on 1,503 lists in 27 constituencies.
The contest is heated in the Tunis 1 constituency, where Rachid Al-Ghannouchi, president of Ennahda, is running for parliament.
The 217 MPs are elected through a closed-list proportional representation system using the largest remainder method. The lists are closed, which means a voter may only choose between lists and not individual candidates.
Other lists vying for the Tunis 1 constituency’s four seats include Basma Beleid, widow of assassinated secularist politician Chokri Beleid, the independent Kalthoum Qano, chair of the Tunisian Judges Association, and Samira Al-Showashy of the Qalb Tunis (Heart of Tunisia) Party that was recently founded by Nabil Karoui, who came first in the 13 October presidential vote.
After the 2014 legislative elections, in which the secular Nidaa Tounes Party and Ennahda won 85 and 69 seats, respectively, the two parties opted for a power-sharing agreement and formed a coalition.
In last month’s first round of the presidential elections, Ennahda fielded the party’s Vice-President and Parliamentary Speaker Abdel-Fattah Mourou, who finished third, contrary to expectations.
A bigger surprise was the rise of populist TV mogul and businessman Karoui, who received 15.6 per cent of the vote, and independent law professor Kais Said, who received 18.4 per cent.
The results were seen as a emssage from increasingly disillusioned voters who were rejecting the system and placing their hopes on newcomers. This Sunday’s parliamentary elections represent a further test for Tunisia’s established parties.
The leaders of Ennahda believe they will win more seats in the coming elections. “Ennahda sees itself as better able to govern and is ready to govern alone or with the forces of the revolution,” Al-Ghannouchi told the press recently.
He did not specify which groups he had in mind, but the Hirak Al-Irdaa Party and the Democratic Current Party led by Mohamed Abbou are the main parties that supported the revolution, according to the Reuters news agency.
A recent pre-election poll conducted by Sigma Conseil, not published because polls are banned by Tunisia’s Independent Higher Authority for Elections (ISIE) but obtained by Al-Ahram Weekly, revealed that Qalb Tunis could get 20.8 per cent of the votes, while Ennahda could get 14.4 per cent followed by the Free Constitutional Party with 13.6 per cent.
Ennahda has also announced that it will be backing Said in the second round of the presidential elections. Karoui, in prison since August this year on charges of money laundering and tax evasion, has not been referred to trial.
Tunisia’s president controls foreign and defence policy and governs alongside a prime minister chosen by parliament who has authority over domestic affairs.
The ISIE reported a low turnout in the first round of the presidential elections at 45 per cent, down from the 64 per cent in the country’s first democratic elections in 2014 after the fall of the regime led by former president Zein Al-Abidine Ben Ali.
The narrow time frame of the two major elections might affect voter turnout in next week’s vote, observers say. The presidential elections were originally scheduled for November but were brought forward following the death of former president Beji Caid Essebsi in July.
Despite the importance of next week’s legislative elections and the direct impact of legislation on people’s daily lives, many Tunisians remain more focused on the presidential run-offs even as the parliamentary election campaigns are in full swing.
Unemployment currently stands at 15 per cent in Tunisia and the cost of living has risen by nearly one third since 2016.
Televised debates between the candidates in the legislative elections broadcast earlier this week focused on such issues as healthcare, access to medicines, social security and education.
Fearing another defeat, Ennahda has redoubled its efforts to appeal to voters, and it is eyeing the position of parliamentary speaker or prime minister, which would go to Al-Ghannouchi should the party win a majority of the seats.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Polls surprise in Tunisian elections