The conservative Ennahdha party has come in first in Tunisia’s parliamentary election, according to an exit poll broadcast by state TV.
The poll by Sigma Conseil showed Rached Ghannouchi’s moderate Islamist party would secure 17.5 percent of Sunday’s vote, or 40 seats in the 217-strong parliament. It was followed closely by Qalb Tounes, a relatively new party founded by jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui, at 15.6 percent or 33 seats.
Hours earlier, Karoui, one of the two candidates to advance to Tunisia’s presidential runoff vote that will be held next week – claimed in a statement that his party had come first.
“We are the most visionary, we want to break the old establishment,” Samy Achour, a senior member of Qalb Tounes’s political bureau, told Al Jazeera.
But if exit polls are anything to go by, not everyone appears ready to do so.
In an election day that came and went without much enthusiasm, voter turnout was expected to be low – recorded at 23.49 percent at 2pm, six hours after the polls opened.
Sharan Grewal, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on North Africa, predicted a lower turnout compared with the first round of Tunisia’s presidential election last month, which stood at 49 percent. The main reason, he said, was that some of the supporters of Kais Saied, Karoui’s opponent in the upcoming presidential runoff, “stayed home” as the academic had no party and “did not endorse any party or list”.
“Several parties, including Ennahdha … tried to court his voters, but it remains to be seen how they did,” Grewal added.
In Sousse, on the Gulf of Hammamet, one voter said he was the only person in a crowded coffee shop sporting a blue index finger – the telltale sign of those who had cast their vote.
Elsewhere, Zohra Eltaief, a 65-year-old retired nurse, said she voted for list number two, that of Abir Moussi’s party. Moussi is often referred to as being nostalgic for the era of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for 24 years before being toppled in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that forced him to flee.
“Moussi is a lawyer and has been always involved in politics, she is the extension of Bourguiba and Ben Ali who were devoted to the country,” Eltaief said. “Today, she is the only one who is able to stop the obscurantism of Ennahdha and its allies.”
Months of coalition talks?
According to the exit poll, Karama, a conservative coalition led by lawyer Seifeddine Makhlouf, came in third with 18 seats, followed by the recently formed Tahya Tounes secular party led by current Prime Minister Youssef Chahed with 16 seats.
“As in 2011 and 2014, the winning party will need to form a coalition to gain a majority,” Grewal said. “The big question here is whether that coalition will include both the top two parties, Ennahdha and Qalb Tounes. During the campaign period, both ruled out a coalition between them.”
This, says Grewal, could mean weeks or even months of negotiations. “No party has over 20 percent, and it will take at least four parties to even form a government,” he added.
Sarah Yerkes, a fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, said she did not expect Ennahdha and Qalb Tunes to work together.
“If Ennahdha is asked to form a government, it will likely do so with a variety of smaller parties and independents,” she said.
Yerkes added that if the exit poll was confirmed, the relatively weak performance of the top two parties compared with the previous parliamentary election in 2014 highlighted “how much more divided the political scene is today”. Five years ago, Nidaa Tounes came first with almost 38 percent of the vote, followed by Ennahdha with nearly 28 percent.
More than 1,500 lists and 15,000 candidates on Sunday ran for 217 seats, with registered political parties and independents vying for control of the single chamber.
While Tunisia is often referred to as the only success story to come out of the Arab Spring, the elections were held against a backdrop of spiralling food prices, inflation and more than 15 percent unemployment.
Preliminary results will be announced on October 10 and official results on November 17. The assembly will then be given two months to choose a prime minister and form a new government.