Tepid turnout as Tunisians vote on toothless parliament
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Polling began in the second round of elections for Tunisia's toothless parliament on Sunday, but as the divided nation grapples with economic woes, turnout looked set to be low.
Some 7.8 million voters are registered to cast ballots for 262 mostly unknown candidates competing for 131 seats in the new legislature.
At 3:00 pm (1400 GMT), just over 7.7 percent had cast ballots, according to electoral board chief Farouk Bouasker, who added that "Tunisians often vote towards the end of the day".
The legislature has been largely stripped of its authority following President Kais Saied's dramatic 2021 power grab, in the birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings.
On July 25, 2021, Saied sacked the government and froze parliament before dissolving it and pushing through a new constitution -- granting him almost unlimited powers and sweeping away the system that had emerged from the 2011 revolt.
The latest polls, whose first round in December saw just 11.2 percent of registered voters take part, are seen as the final pillar of Saied's transformation of politics.
The new legislature will have almost no power to hold the president or government to account.
"There's no way I'm voting," said Mohamed Abidi, 51, a waiter at a cafe in Tunis.
"Saied isn't listening to anyone to find solutions for our situation. The whole economy is suffering but he's not interested -- he only wants to keep his place in the presidential palace."
But in the southwestern town of Kasserine, voter Mokhtar Hermasi said he was doing his "electoral duty" despite a "bland campaign".
The head of the polling station said voter numbers had picked up throughout the day, noting that many of those casting ballots were older.
In Gafsa, a two-hour drive further south, Mohamed Tlijani and Ali Krimi said they had both turned out to vote for Tlijani's cousin.
"The electoral process has become exhausting but we want him to win, we have the right to have a representative in parliament," Krimi said.
Analysts predict few of Tunisia's eligible voters will cast their ballots in the second round, as major parties including Saied's arch-rivals, the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha, call for a boycott.
- 'Dramatic' situation -
Youssef Cherif, director of Columbia Global Centers in Tunis, said "this parliament will have very little legitimacy, and the president, who is all-powerful thanks to the 2022 constitution, will be able to control it as he sees fit."
Cherif also noted Tunisians' "lack of interest" in politics.
With inflation at over 10 percent and repeated shortages of basic household goods, the North African country's 12 million people have been focused on more immediate issues.
Ratings agency Moody's on Saturday downgraded Tunisia's credit score to Caa2, citing "the absence of comprehensive financing to date to meet the government's large funding needs".
The cash-strapped country is struggling under debt worth around 80 percent of its gross domestic product.
Omrane Dhouib, an apprentice baker in the capital, said he was struggling to make ends meet and had no faith in the country's political elite.
"Saied had the chance to make radical changes. He seized all powers but he did nothing," he said.
But taxi driver Belhassen Ben Safta was determined to vote to prevent a return to the previous, Ennahdha-dominated system.
"We've got to vote! We can't leave even the slightest possibility that the old system returns."
More than 32,000 Tunisians are estimated to have made clandestine bids to reach Europe over the past year, as poverty and unemployment rise.
The election takes place in the shadow of drawn-out negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout worth nearly $2 billion.
Cherif said the talks were stumbling over concerns held by the United States for the future of Tunisian democracy and Saied's apparent reluctance to "accept the IMF's diktats" on politically sensitive issues, including subsidy reform.