Tunisians have approved a new constitution granting unchecked powers to the office of President Kais Saied in a referendum marked by low voter turnout. The move has sparked warnings of a dangerous democratic regression in a country facing political and economic crises.
Preliminary results announced by Tunisia’s electoral commission late Tuesday confirmed a foregone conclusion. More than 94 percent of the votes backed the new constitution, which will see sweeping executive powers given to the president and the removal of key checks and balances, including weakening the influence of the country’s parliament and judiciary. The vote was marked by a high abstention rate, with nearly 70 percent of Tunisians boycotting Monday’s referendum, reflecting a mixture of apathy and a lack of faith in the country’s elites in their country’s post-revolutionary future.
On this main street of the Tunisian capital, Tunis, young supporters of President Kaïs Saïed celebrate the approval of the constitution after the referendum July 25, 2022. © Mehdi Chebil, France 24 Ahead of Tuesday’s announcement by the electoral commission, there was little doubt the “yes” campaign would prevail, according to exit poll forecasts. “Tunisia has entered a new phase,” Saied told celebrating supporters hours after polls closed. “The referendum will allow us to move from a situation of despair to one of hope.”
In front of the municipal theatre in Tunis, a crowd celebrates the new constitution, on Monday, July 25 © Mehdi Chebil, France 24 But Tunisia is facing a major economic crisis aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The North African nation is also grappling to prevent food shortages since the war in Ukraine sent global cereal prices soaring, presenting a food security challenge for a country heavily dependent on wheat imports. Rising food prices have also sparked fears of social unrest in the country once dubbed “the cradle of the Arab Spring” following the ouster of Tunisian strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. For several years after the 2011 uprisings, Tunisia was hailed as the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring. But the new constitution threatens to unravel the democratic gains in a country now deeply polarised over President Kais Saied’s greatly expanded powers.
‘A hyper-presidential regime’Tunisia’s 64-year-old president considers the new constitution an extension of a “correction course” which began on July 25, 2021, when he dismissed his prime minister and suspended parliament before dissolving it earlier this year, citing political and economic blockages.
Human rights defenders and Tunisian opposition figures have denounced the absence of checks and balances in the new constitutional text. The warnings increased last month when Saied, having granted himself power by decree to summarily fire judges, proceeded to dismiss 57 judges.
“This new constitution raises very serious concerns within civil society on several issues related to the rule of law, and is a major regression compared to the 2014 Constitution,” said Lamine Benghazi of the Tunis-based NGO Lawyers Without Borders.
According to Benghazi, the new text “enshrines a hyper-presidential regime”, placing the head of state “above any political or penal accountability”. It also raises fears about the independence of the judiciary, which has been “torpedoed over the past year”.
© France 24 On February 5, Saied announced the dissolution of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, an independent body created in 2016 to appoint judges. The Tunisian president accused the body of bias and of being under the influence of the Islamist Ennahda party.
Days later, Saied announced that he had replaced the Supreme Council of the Magistracy with another “temporary” body and gave himself the power to dismiss judges and prohibit them from going on strike.
“Tunisia is moving towards a less parliamentary and more presidential system,” analyst Youssef Cherif told AFP. “The examples of the region and Tunisian history indicate that this will lead to a hardening of the regime and less democracy,” he added.
Authoritarian spectre in ‘post-Saied era’Saied’s undermining of the country’s legislative and judicial branches threatens to spark a resurgence of authoritarianism in a country that was long ruled by strongmen before the 2011 revolution.
“We are perhaps witnessing the birth of a new dictator. It may not be Kais Saied, but it will be his successor,” Nabil Guassoumi, a teacher in Kasserine, situated around 300 km from Tunis, told FRANCE 24.
A veteran politician and jurist, Saied has dismissed international warnings of a constitutional power grab. “It is not at this age that I will start a career as a dictator,” he has noted ironically.
© France 24 The real danger confronting the country could arise “in the post-Kais Saied era”, noted Cherif.
The expansion of presidential powers could allow Saied’s successor to usher Tunisia towards a “real authoritarian regime, even as dictatorial, as in the time of Ben Ali”, explained FRANCE 24’s Bruno Daroux.
Opposition choice: Boycott or vote ‘no’Supporters of Saied have hailed the results of the referendum, but their jubilation “poorly hides” the lack of interest among a large segment of the Tunisian population over the referendum, said FRANCE 24’s Karim Yahiaoui, reporting from Tunis.
Around 70 percent of registered voters did not turn out to vote: a record for the post-Ben Ali era, said Benghazi. “It is therefore mainly abstentions that have prevailed. In a self-respecting democratic country, there should have been a minimum participation threshold of 50 percent,” he noted.
Tunisia’s opposition remained divided between voting ”no” and boycotting the referendum, explained Yahiaoui.
For Afef Daoud, head of the left-wing Ettakatol party, the boycott was obvious. “This constitutional reform was not a demand of the people, who were asking for economic and social reforms,” said Daoud in an interview with FRANCE 24. By abstaining massively, the people clearly answered “We are not interested”, she noted.
‘We have seen nothing, neither work, nor freedom, nor dignity’The Tunisians who voted “yes” were not necessarily endorsing Saied, but rather sanctioning the system put in place since 2011, explained Yahiaoui.
Hichem Abaidi, a chemistry graduate who is now unemployed, tries to survive in Kasserine by giving private lessons. His anger is directed at the leaders who preceded Saied: “We have seen nothing, neither work, nor freedom, nor dignity. While they were in power, we got nothing,” he told FRANCE 24.
In the end, Tunisians are condemning the country’s “political practices”, not the 2014 Constitution, said Daoud. The 2014 constitution “opened the way to a better future, but once voted, it was never implemented. The political parties elected since 2014, such as the grand coalition of Ennahda-Nidaa Tounes, have never responded to the demands of the population”, she explained
The National Salvation Front, a coalition of opposition parties in Tunisia, accused the electoral body on Tuesday of “falsifying” turnout figures, arguing that Saied’s referendum had “failed”.
But for the majority of Tunisians, the most burning concerns are economic. Sluggish growth (approximately 3 percent), high unemployment (nearly 40 percent of young people) and galloping inflation have increased the number of poor people to 4 million in a country of less than 12 million inhabitants.
The country, now on the verge of default with a debt of over 100 percent of GDP, is negotiating a new loan with the IMF. The loan has a good chance of being granted, but will require sacrifices in return that are likely to further inflame social discontent.
This article was adapted from the original in French.