The new Tunisian electoral law drops parity in a disastrous political and economic situation

While the old electoral law enshrined gender parity among candidates by obliging political parties to present lists equally composed of men and women, the shift in the voting system in the new electoral law makes it way more difficult – if not impossible - to achieve it. 

The new electoral law, published in September 2022 by decree, changes from a multi-member, closed-list system to a single-member, two-round system. Thus, it only enshrines parity at the sponsorship stage, with candidates having to obtain 400 signatures from voters, 50% of which must be women. This new electoral mechanism sadly did not help women to run this year, unveiling a notable difficulty in obtaining sponsorships, which led to 3 women out of 23 candidates winning in the first round.

This result reveals the effects such a shift can have on women’s involvement in politics. Only 15% of the candidates are women in these elections, while they represented 48% in 2014 and 47.5% in 2019, as reported by the journalist Rihab Boukhayatia for the Tunisian media outlet Nawaat, warning it will make up the next parliament of an 'overwhelming majority of men’. For political opportunities are not as available to women as they are to men - all over the world – it is difficult to question the help that mandatory parity measures can represent in political gender equity.

Tunisia has often acted as a pioneer in the Arab world, with what some call a ‘state feminism', in the words of Tunisian-French journalist and historian Sophie Bessis, firstly put in place in the 1950s by Habib Bourguiba. With Ben Ali, followed by the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisian institutional feminism experienced ups and downs but, overall, the country managed to keep its special feminist appearance in the world.

Why would President Kaîs Saïed deliberately choose to remove the parity of candidates for the Assembly? This action is all the more surprising given the fact that, following his decision to suspend the Parliament and dismiss Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi on July 25, 2021, he chose a woman as head of government - the engineer and academic Najla Bouden - which was a first in the Arab world. Najla Bouden's government is also the first in Tunisia's history to be composed of ten women, against sixteen men. In a country engulfed in an unprecedented political and economic crisis, this unexpected decision reveals two things. 

First, Saied's desire to put an end to a powerful and corrupt Assembly, characterised by a primary focus on not ending up with the over-representation of a party, which the former closed-list system could have allowed - especially Ennahdha, the party whose actions have been the subject of strong and main criticism of the Tunisian people during protests, before Saied’s decision to suspend the parliament in July 2021. This can also be illustrated by the limited powers the new deputies will have, as their work will primarily consist of examination of draft laws submitted directly by the presidency of the Republic.

However, the new electoral law also reflects the fact that feminist issues in politics have been pushed to the secondary plan in a catastrophic economic context with, at the end of 2022, an overall unemployment rate of 15.3% - and a youth unemployment rate of around 37% -, an increase of 8.6% of the public debt reaching nearly 106 billion Tunisian dinars, and an inflation rate of more than 10%, according to the Tunisian National Institute - all leading to a strong loss of purchasing power since the Revolution.

In any case, the absence of the parity mechanism in the new electoral law cannot be a simple miscalculation since it comes from Saïed himself, a former professor of constitutional law. Feminist associations are right to be concerned; and the future will tell if the insertion of a constitutional mechanism favouring parity in the election is likely to become an imperative – at least if Tunisia wants to keep its image as a leader in that space.