Tunisians head to the polls on Monday to vote on a new constitution – a controversial move led by Tunisian President Kais Saied that critics say will formalize his power grab and reverse hard-won democratic gains in the North African nation.
Monday’s referendum marks one year to the day that Saied froze Tunisia’s parliament and toppled his government – a move derided by critics as “a coup” but celebrated by Tunisians enraged by the country’s political elites and years of economic stagnation. Over the next year, Saied gave himself the power to rule by decree and fired dozens of judges, decisions that sparked a series of protests.
The new constitution gives the president’s office full executive powers and removes key checks and balances. The power of the Tunisian judiciary and parliament would be significantly reduced.
Critics warn that Saied’s new political structure could pave the way for a new autocracy in the country which rose up against former autocratic strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and launched pro-democracy Spring protests Arab. Tunisia is the only nation to emerge with a democracy from these protests.
Saied says the changes are needed to root out corruption and “bring the nation back to the revolutionary path.”
The drafting and organization of Monday’s referendum were marred by controversy. Sadok Belaid, a constitutional law professor appointed by Saied to head the new constitution’s drafting committee, denounced the outcome – which was extensively revised by the president – saying it “contains considerable risks and loopholes. “which could pave the way for “a shameful dictatorial regime”.
Saied urged Tunisians to support the proposal, despite election standards requiring him to remain neutral. The ballot will be supervised by the Independent High Authority for Elections, whose members he appointed.
A former constitutional law professor, Saied ran for president on a populist, anti-corruption platform in 2019, winning with more than 70% of the vote in the second round.
Saied’s supporters believe the new constitution will end years of political stalemate.
Fatma Ben Salah, a pro-Saied civil society activist, says it is “abnormal” that the 2014 constitution grants limited powers to a president elected by a large majority but gives more power to the prime minister. According to Ben Salah, Tunisia has become ungovernable due to years of conflict between the three branches of government, deepening the country’s economic and social crisis.
Former minister Hatem El Euchi believes that the unification of the executive power could ensure stability, revive the economy and investment and create jobs. The National Institute of Statistics of Tunisia indicates that the unemployment rate stands at more than 16% while inflation has increased to 8.1%.
But for Tunisian magistrate Ahmed Souab, the constitution represents a “serious danger to democracy” because it does not guarantee a clear balance of powers and gives more prerogatives to Saied than those held by former Tunisian strongmen.
Many civil society groups rejected the new constitution. The Tunisian non-governmental group Al Bawsala claims that the new constitution would lead to a monopolization of power that would threaten the rights and freedoms of every citizen.
“(It) does not provide any mechanism of control, even in the event of a flagrant violation of the constitution by the president,” Haythem Benzid, head of communications for Al Bawsala, told The Associated Press.
Benzid believes Saied is building on widespread discontent over poor governance in the decade following Tunisia’s revolution.
The draft constitution has divided the Tunisian opposition. Only one party, Afek Tounes, said it would vote against the proposal. Most political parties, including Tunisia’s influential Islamist Ennahdha party, say they plan to boycott Monday’s referendum so as not to legitimize the process.
“We refuse to go to the funeral of democracy,” said Republican Party leader Issam Chebbi, adding that he considered “the absolute personal power” that Saïed wants to grant himself “worse than that of Ben Ali”.
Tunisian activist Henda Fellah tweeted on Sunday that she had decided to boycott the vote, saying the text is built on imperfect foundations and its violations of electoral law were “countless”.
“It would be the first time I haven’t voted since 2011,” Fellah said.
Many observers expect low voter turnout for the referendum, pointing to Tunisians’ disenchantment with politics and their daily struggles with rising inflation.
Preliminary results are expected to be announced by Wednesday, with a final result on August 28.