Turnout low as Tunisia holds first free municipal elections

Tunisia held its first free municipal elections on Sunday but only one in three eligible voters cast ballots, reflecting frustration at the slow pace of change since the 2011 revolution in the cradle of the Arab Spring.

The election has been touted as another milestone on the road to democracy in the North African country, which has been praised for its transition from decades of dictatorship.

But Tunisia has struggled with persistent political, security and economic problems as well as corruption since the revolution, and turnout was just 33.7% of the 5.3 million eligible voters in Sunday’s poll.

A polling institute gave the Islamist Ennahdha movement 25% of the vote, ahead of its coalition partner, the secular Nidaa Tounes party of President Beji Caid Essebsi on 22%, as experts predicted, with smaller parties far behind.

“The government has promised a lot and achieved little,” said former Prime Minister Mehdi Jamaa. “Tunisians haven’t voted much.”

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed said the low turnout was “a negative sign, a strong message… for politicians.”

Casting his ballot earlier, voter Chokri Halaoui, 45, echoed the sentiment, saying he wanted to tell politicians: “We have voted, now show us what you can do.”

Another voter, 58-year-old Ridha Kouki, said Tunisians “have little hope” of any change.

Young voters were markedly absent from polling stations in the capital Tunis, resisting offers of discounts from bars and a clothing brand to people with ink-stained fingers proving they had cast ballots.

“I already fell into their trap in 2014,” said 23-year-old Kamilia Mlouki, an unemployed graduate who cast a blank ballot. “I’m not going to make the same mistake again.”

Rafik Halouani, head of the election-monitoring agency Mourakiboun, said he feared that young Tunisians “no longer believe in elections as a source of change, which is very serious for democracy.”

Tunisians have already voted in parliamentary and presidential elections since the 2011 fall of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but municipal polls had been delayed four times due to logistical, administrative and political deadlocks.