A 91 percent abstention rate from Tunisia's parliamentary elections indicates a growing gap between Tunisians and the North African country's politics.

Polls have closed in Tunisia’s parliamentary elections, which have seen a low voter turnout and a boycott from the country’s main opposition parties.

Only 8.8 percent of Tunisia’s 9.2 million eligible voters cast ballots on Saturday, according to provisional figures, and most political parties, including the Ennahda movement, Heart of Tunisia Party and Movement Party, boycotted the polls.

“The vote is largely insignificant. Tunisia moved from a parliamentary system to a presidential one this summer, and the parliament lost many of its prerogatives," Youssef Cherif, director of the Columbia Global Centers Tunis, a think tank set up by the New York-based university, tells TRT World. 

“The vote is one more step in the path traced by the president for his 'project,' but the popular boycott is an indicator that only a few Tunisians are really following him,” he adds.

An additional round of legislative elections and another regional election are expected this spring. 

On Sunday, the leader of Tunisia's main opposition alliance, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi of the National Salvation Front,  called on President Kais Saied to "leave immediately" following the mass voter abstention.

READ MORE: Hundreds of Tunisians protest against president a week before elections

Kais Saied's power grab

The elections held for the lower house of parliament are the latest step in a series of measures taken by Saied, who, in July 2021, ousted the government, dissolved parliament and assumed executive authority. 

A couple of months later, Saied abolished the country’s constitutional monitoring body. By February this year, he had dissolved a key judicial watchdog, the Supreme Judicial Council - a body tasked with ensuring the independence of the country's justice system.

In a referendum in July this year, Tunisians approved a constitution that hands broad executive powers to the president. Saied led the project excluding all major political parties and civil society groups from the process.

In September, the president changed the electoral law, diminishing the role of political parties in a reformed parliament that now has fewer powers under the new constitution.

The new electoral law reduces the number of members of the lower house of parliament from 217 to 161, who were elected directly instead of through a party list. The new electoral law has also done away with electoral lists. Some constituencies only had one candidate, resulting in some automatic winners.  

Voters baffled by the new rules and candidates

Tunisians voted for the 161 seats in the House of Representatives from among 1,055 candidates, including 120 women. 

“Those who ran for these elections are mostly common people with no obvious political affiliation," Cherif explains, "but the roles of the new parliament and its MPs are not yet grasped by voters, and the new system itself is not yet fully in place,” Cherif tells TRT World.

According to Cherif, while “elections were held because the president keeps promising to give more power to the people," the low turnout was "unexpected and that in itself shows that democracy hasn't died in Tunisia.”

READ MORE: Tunisia’s referendum result paints a complex picture of the country

State of Tunisia's democracy 

At the end of last year, the president said he had been forced to make reforms over economic and social problems because parliament had turned into a theatre for confrontation.

However, some Tunisians worry that the lack of political affiliations among the candidates will create more political infighting. Critics - including Cherif - say there is no nationwide project that can unify the members of parliament.  

The parliamentary elections took place against a backdrop of Tunisia’s deepening economic crisis, which the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated.

The cost of living in the country has spiked, hitting the poor and middle class alike amid shortages of basic goods and soaring unemployment.

As a result, most Tunisians are more focused on their socioeconomic conditions than the direction the political system is taking in their country.

“The main takeaway from these elections is the disconnect between Tunisians and politics,” Cherif says. 

Yesterday’s vote came on the 12th anniversary of the event that sparked the Arab Spring — when a Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire because of the dire economic situation under the long-time rule of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

“Democracy in Tunisia faced multiple problems since the onset: absence of structured political parties, deteriorating economic situation, elite polarisation," Cherif says, "problems accelerated last year, with Covid amplifying them."

“The return of the police state is now possible," he argues but adds that civil society organisations as well as Tunisia's powerful General Labour Union can still act as checks and balances. 

"Everything is not yet lost,” he says. 

READ MORE: Tunisia, Egypt line up for IMF bailouts

Source: TRTWorld and agencies