TUNIS: Tunisians will vote on Monday for a constitution that would give more power to President Kais Saied, a key moment in his plan to overhaul the political system.
The referendum comes a year to the day after Saied sacked the government and suspended parliament.
Its opponents have called for a boycott, but while observers predicted most Tunisians would snub the poll, few doubt the charter will pass.
“The biggest unknown in this referendum is turnout and whether it will be low or very low,” analyst Youssef Cherif said.
Those who vote yes “will do so either because they love the president or because they hate those who have ruled Tunisia” since the 2011 uprising that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, he added.
The text aims to replace the mixed presidential-parliamentary system enshrined in a 2014 constitution, which saw Tunisia hailed as the only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab uprisings.
The leader of Saied’s “new republic” would have ultimate executive power and appoint a government without needing a vote of confidence in parliament.
The president would also lead the armed forces and appoint judges, who would be prohibited from striking.
Saied’s rivals, including the Ennahdha party which has dominated Tunisian politics since 2011, accuse him of returning the country to autocracy.
The process leading to the referendum was also widely criticised.
“People don’t know what they’re voting on or why,” Cherif said.
Political analyst Hamadi Redissi said that, unlike in 2014, there was little debate involving all stakeholders over the text which was “hastily written in just a few weeks”.
Saied, who since last year has ruled by decree and taken control of the judiciary and electoral council, held an online public consultation meant to guide a committee in drafting a new constitution.
But Sadeq Belaid, the legal expert who led the process, disavowed Saied’s plan, saying it was “completely different” from what his committee had submitted and warning it could install “a dictatorial regime”.
Saied released a slightly modified document just over two weeks before the vote, but even with the new draft it would be nearly impossible to force the president to resign.
Redissi said the country will not become like China or Egypt, but may end up looking like Turkey or Russia.
Isabelle Werenfels, a researcher at the German think tank SWP, warned that Tunisia was “moving towards a closed system”.
“If you look at the ongoing dismantling of the watchdog institutions of freedom, democracy and new rules, it seems like the net is getting tighter,” she said.
The campaign by registrants to publicly express a position on the constitution has been lukewarm.
Only seven organizations or people are registered for the “no” campaign, against 144 for the “yes”.
Billboards displaying the Tunisian flag appeared in Tunis bearing a phrase from an open letter published by Saied, calling for a ‘yes’ vote ‘so that the state does not weaken and the aims of the revolution are achieved’ .
While recent elections have seen low turnout, Saied himself, a former jurist seen as incorruptible and distant from the widely suspicious political elite, was elected in a landslide in 2019 with a voter turnout of 58%.
Today, Tunisians face economic hardship made worse by the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, and “very few people are interested in politics”, Cherif said.
Saied will urgently need to find solutions for an economy struggling with high inflation, youth unemployment of up to 40% and a third of the population facing poverty.
The country is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout, but experts have warned that the liberalizing reforms the lender is likely to demand in return could spark social unrest.
Meanwhile, fears are growing for Tunisia’s widely praised, albeit flawed, democracy.
Freedom House and The Economist had previously reclassified Tunisia from “free” to “partly free”, Cherif noted.
“The fact that people can express themselves freely or go and vote ‘no’ without going to jail shows that we are not in a traditional dictatorship,” he said.
But, he added, “this constitution could create an authoritarian regime similar to the regimes Tunisia experienced before 2011”.