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Tunisia Critics See "Undemocratic" Election

FILE: Tunisian demonstrators take part in a rally against President Kais Saied, called for by the opposition "National Salvation Front" coalition, in the capital Tunis. Taken December 10, 2022.

For Tunisia's President Kais Saied, Saturday's parliamentary election caps the new political structure he built after seizing broad powers last year, but the opposition calls it undemocratic and the main parties will boycott the vote.

"This parliament has nothing to do and the people running for it are only seeking a position and money and they can do nothing. The president has all the power," said Lazhar Bousitta, 54, selling razors on the street in Sidi Bahri.

Sidi Bari has particular circumstances: it is in one of seven of Tunisia's total 161 constituencies with only one candidate running.

Even when Sidi Bahri's MP takes his parliamentary seat, it will be in a body whose powers have been sharply reduced under the new constitution, compared with the previous legislature that took the lead role in forming governments and overseeing policy.

Unlike the elected parliament that Saied shut down last year in a move his critics call a coup, the new legislature will be elected under a law that reduces the role of political parties.

There is a also a widespread distrust in government after years of political wrangling and economic frustration, adding to what critics of the president and many foreign observers see as the hollowing out of Tunisia's once promising democracy.

Saturday's vote is on the anniversary of the self-immolation of the vegetable seller whose death in 2010 started Tunisia's 2011 revolution that triggered the Arab Spring. Tunisia's political reforms were seen as a relative success story amid uprisings that flared into war or tyranny elsewhere in the region.

Among those still engaged with politics, there is bitter division between supporters of Saied who blame the main post-revolutionary parties for Tunisia's problems and those who see the president as a would-be autocrat.

Opinion polling has been banned in the run-up to the election but the referendum in July on Saied's new constitution had turnout of only about 30%. It was not clear how far that represented apathy or the boycott called by the opposition. The election laws also bar reporting by the foreign media on specific candidates.

Most people Reuters spoke to in the area voiced little interest in the election - they are worried about a daily struggle with shortages in shops and pharmacies and declining services, and saw little chance of change.

The economy shrank by 8.79% during the COVID-19 pandemic and is has grown only slowly since then. Inflation last month was a record 9.8% and the government is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout to avert bankruptcy.

Husam Zayani, a young cigarette seller, said he was unable to pay his rent, water or electricity bill and he just wanted to leave Tunisia with his wife and daughter.

The number of undocumented migrants from Tunisia has surged this year according to migration and refugee agencies, mostly on boats crossing to Italy.

"I will not take part in any elections. The next parliament will be a big lie and will not be able to do anything for us," Zayani said.