Tunisians vote on constitution aimed at strengthening one-man rule

The referendum comes a year to the day after Saied sacked the government and froze parliament in a dramatic power grab, as Tunisia grappled with rising coronavirus cases on top of political and economic crises.

Tunisian demonstrators hold signs on July 23, 2022, during a protest along Habib Bourguiba Avenue in the capital, Tunis, against their president and the upcoming July 25 constitutional referendum. Photo: FETHI BELAID/AFP

TUNIS — Tunisians are voting Monday on a constitution seen as a referendum on President Kais Saied, whose charter would give his office nearly unchecked powers in a break from the country’s post-2011 democratic trend.

Voting takes place from 06:00 (05:00 GMT) to 22:00 at some 11,000 polling stations across the North African country.

According to the ISIE electoral commission, about 9.3 million of Tunisia‘s 12 million people – civilians over the age of 18 – have registered or been automatically registered to vote.

They include around 356,000 registered overseas, for whom voting began on Saturday.

The referendum comes a year to the day after Saied sacked the government and froze parliament in a dramatic power grab, as Tunisia grappled with rising coronavirus cases on top of political and economic crises.

Many Tunisians hailed his actions against political parties and the often deadlocked parliament, part of a system long hailed as the only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab uprisings.

But after a year of one-man rule in which he greatly expanded his powers and made little progress in addressing deep economic issues, Saied’s personal popularity will be in the spotlight.

ALL EYES ON PARTICIPATION

“The biggest unknown in this referendum is turnout and whether it will be low or very low,” analyst Youssef Cherif said.

No quorum was set, nor any provision made for a “no” result, and Saied’s constitution for a “new republic” is expected to be adopted.

Saied’s rivals, rights groups and international organizations have warned he risks turning the country back into a dictatorship, more than a decade after the toppling of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali sparked pro- democracy in the region.

Opposition parties and civil society groups called for a boycott, while the powerful UGTT union took no formal position on the vote.

Saied’s charter would replace the country’s 2014 constitution, a hard-won compromise between Islamist and secular forces reached after three years of political unrest.

His supporters blame the hybrid parliamentary-presidential system he introduced, and the dominant Islamist-influenced Ennahdha party, for years of political crises and widespread corruption.

Saied’s draft was released earlier this month with little reference to an earlier draft – produced by a committee appointed by the president.

The new text would place the head of state in supreme command of the army, give him full executive control and allow him to appoint a government without parliamentary approval.

He could also present bills to parliament, which would be obliged to give them priority.

It would be nearly impossible to impeach him before his five-year term ends in 2024.

Sadeq Belaid, the legal expert who led the drafting committee, said Saied’s version was “completely different” from the committee’s and 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.

REVOLUTIONARY ‘FIX’

The project was heavily promoted in state media, and billboards displaying the Tunisian flag appeared urging people to vote “yes”.

“People don’t know what they’re voting on or why,” Cherif said.

Saied, a 64-year-old law professor, won a landslide victory in the 2019 presidential elections, building on his image as incorruptible and alienated from the political elite.

He has appeared increasingly isolated in recent months, limiting his public comments to official videos from his office – often rants against domestic enemies he calls “snakes”, “germs” and “traitors”.

He has sworn to protect the freedoms of Tunisians and describes his political project as a “correction” and a return to the path of revolution.

“Many young people, marginalized and excluded, are on his side,” said political scientist Hamadi Redissi.

That popularity will continue to be tested in the months ahead as Tunisians face soaring inflation, 40% youth unemployment and a looming deal with the International Monetary Fund which observers say , could lead to further economic hardship.

Cherif said that for the moment, “the fact that people can express themselves freely or vote ‘no’ without going to prison shows that we are not in a traditional dictatorship”.

But, he added, “this constitution could create an authoritarian regime like the regimes that Tunisia experienced before 2011”.

About Wesley V. Finley

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