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New Tunisia Election Law Blow to Democracy - Analyst

FILE - Tunisian parliament members gather during the inaugural session of the newly elected Tunisian parliament in Tunis, Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014.
FILE - Tunisian parliament members gather during the inaugural session of the newly elected Tunisian parliament in Tunis, Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014.

Tunisia is holding its legislative elections on December 17. More than 1,000 candidates are running for the elections, while most political parties have called for a boycott. VOA’s Angie Omar discussed the extent of Saied’s broad powers on Tunisia’s democracy with Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow in Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program, where her research focuses on Tunisia’s political, economic, and security developments.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Angie Omar: Tunisians believe that their role has been greatly reduced since the reform of the Constitution pushed through by President Kais Saied after his forceful coup last July.

To what extent do you think the elections are meaningless given the broad powers Kais Saied gave himself in the new constitution?

Sarah Yerkes: I agree that these elections are really largely meaningless and they are really set up to bring to power a toothless legislature. The 2020 constitution severely limits the power of the parliament.

This constitution makes President Saied above the law. He cannot be impeached He cannot be removed from office. He also maintains the ability to pass his own decree laws and to veto parliament's work, making much of what they do rather irrelevant.

Additionally, one of the things that is quite odd about this constitution is that he has created a second chamber of parliament, the National Council of Regions and Districts.

We know very little about this body at this time. so Tunisians are going to the polls to elect a legislature that will only be half of the governing entity. They don't even know what the separation of powers will be between these two bodies. So this whole process has just been troubling from the start.

Omar: President Saied released a new electoral law on September 15 with new rules that will govern the December legislative elections. What is your take on that?

Yerkes: Since President Kais Saied seized power in his coup back on July 25, 2021, he has really steadily chipped away at Tunisia's decade of democratic progress and this electoral law is the latest codification of his anti-democratic agenda.

The law has made it onerous for people to run for office which is one of the reasons that we have seen several districts that are up for election on Saturday with only one or in some cases zero candidates which is a remarkable situation, but it also severely limited the role of political parties who have long been Saied’s enemy and one of his main targets which is one of the main reasons why a lot of these parties are boycotting in the final place. However, the law ran counter to Saied's own supposed anti-corruption agenda.

One of the things that was quite strange about this law is that it eliminated the public financing of campaigns which means that only people who have the means to run mostly wealthy individuals or people who are well-connected are able to run for office which is completely counter to Saied’s mantra that he is supposed to be a man of the people and supporting the people. So, by taking away the equalizing factor of only allowing public financing to govern is really just an odd move on his part.

Overall, the law has been troubling in many ways and I think that's borne out in the fact that no one is even running, in part because of the onerous challenges that run but also just in part because people don't think this is a useful exercise.

Omar: Tunisia is also in the grip of a deep financial crisis which has resulted in recurrent shortages of basic products such as sugar, milk, and rice. How much do you think that will add up to the inflation in the country?

Yerkes: Tunisia has been experiencing really a growing financial crisis for months and inflation is brutal today. It is leaving many Tunisians unable to pay for basic goods. We were seeing long lines of queues for petrol, bread, and other goods at the grocery stores.

I think what's really important to remember is that President Saied has done nothing in addressing this crisis, and many of his policies in fact exacerbated the financial difficulties that many Tunisians are facing with the Constitution that he designed which puts all the power into his own hands. So he has the ability to make changes.

He has the ability to take advantage of this really unique situation in order to push through troubling economic reforms that have been risky to other parties of the past. He doesn't have to rely on a parliament to agree to the measures he would need to take.

His policies have also lost the confidence of international donors.