Detained candidate says his party won Tunisia parliamentary election

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TUNIS (Reuters) – A detained media mogul said the political party he leads has come first in Tunisia’s parliamentary election on Sunday, although none of the other major parties has commented on the vote with polls closing little more an hour ago.

Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda party, casts his ballot at a polling station during the parliamentary elections in Tunis,Tunisia October 6, 2019. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Nabil Karoui, leader of the poverty fighting “Heart of Tunisia” party, is one of two candidates from the first round of a presidential election held last month to reach a runoff vote next Sunday.

He was arrested in August on charges of money laundering and tax fraud, which he denies, and has contested the election from a jail cell pending his trial.

The moderate Islamist Ennahda, the best-organized party in Tunisia with the widest nationwide presence, has positioned itself in opposition to Karoui in both the parliamentary and presidential elections, backing his rival in the presidential vote, Kais Saied.

Public annoyance at years of ineffective coalitions has fueled a sense of disillusionment eight years after a revolution that introduced democracy and inspired the “Arab Spring”.

Polls closed at 6 p.m. (1700 GMT) on Sunday with the first exit poll expected at 8 p.m..

Any new government will face the same obstacles that have bedeviled its predecessors – high unemployment, inflation and public debt, a powerful union that resists change and foreign lenders who demand it.

However, with established parties having performed poorly in the first round of the presidential election, it seems possible that no clear winner will emerge in parliament.

That could make building a governing coalition able to command a majority in parliament a vexatious and prolonged process, despite the urgent action that agencies such as the International Monetary Fund say are needed for the economy.

Turnout was about 15% by 2 p.m., prompting the electoral commission head to urge more voters to cast their ballots, local radio stations reported.

The failure of repeated coalition governments that grouped the old secular elite plus Ennahda to address a weak economy and declining public services has dismayed many Tunisians.

“After the revolution, we were all optimistic and our hopes were high. But hope has been greatly diminished now as a result of the disastrous performance of the rulers and the former parliament,” said Basma Zoghbi, a worker for Tunis municipality.

Unemployment, 15% nationally and 30% in some cities, is higher than it was under the former autocrat, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who died last month in exile in Saudi Arabia.

While the president directly controls foreign and defense policy, the largest party in parliament nominates the prime minister, who forms a government that shapes most domestic policy.

At several polling stations visited by Reuters on Sunday, there seemed to be few younger voters.

One of them, Imad Salhi, 28, a waiter, was concerned about the direction of Tunisian politics. “I am very afraid that the country will fall into the hands of populists in the next stage,” he said.

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The success of Karoui and Saied, a retired law professor with conservative social views, in the first round of the presidential election has put pressure on the established parties.

If, despite Karoui’s claim of victory, no party emerges as the clear winner on Sunday, it could complicate the process of building a coalition government.

Reflecting the uncertain atmosphere, Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia have sworn not to join governments the other is part of, a stance that bodes ill for the give-and-take vital to forming an administration.

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“Tunisians should be proud for their democracy but the focus should be on economic and social conditions of Tunisians,” Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi told Reuters after voting in Tunis.

If even the biggest party fails to win a large number of seats, with many independents standing, it may struggle to build a coalition reaching the 109 MPs needed to secure majority support for a new government.

It has two months from the election to do so before the president can ask another party to begin negotiations to form a government. If that fails, the election will be held again.

Reporting by Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall; Editing by Alison Williams, Kirsten Donovan

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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