The constitutional referendum, which is expected to pass amid boycott calls, will concentrate all powers in the hands of the president.
On July 25, Tunisians are being called to vote on constitutional changes that will lock in the vast powers President Kais Saied seized a year ago in a move that opponents have described as a coup.
Supporters of the president decry political paralysis and corruption, and argue that the move is needed to stabilise the country and improve its ailing economy.
Voter turnout is expected to be low as all political parties save one have endorsed a boycott of the referendum. Few people were seen casting their ballots at the 11,000 polling stations open across the country on Monday. With no minimum participation threshold, the referendum is expected to pass.
Exactly a year ago, Saied suspended parliament and sacked the prime minister, citing a national emergency and a contentious interpretation of Tunisia’s constitution. The retired law professor, who was elected president in 2019, began ruling by decree in September last year.
In March 2022, he dissolved parliament just hours after a plenary session was held to revoke his “exceptional measures.” At a National Security Council meeting, Saied claimed that the decision had been taken to “preserve the state and its institutions.”
In June, Saied dismissed dozens of judges on grounds of corruption and support for terrorism. The UN said the move was based on “vague, undefined criteria” and was made “without due process.”
Opponents say the new constitution will enshrine the broad powers Saied has assumed and deal a final blow to Tunisia’s transition to democracy, which began when an uprising in late 2010 ousted longtime autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and sparked the Arab Spring across the Middle East and North Africa.
Protesters in Tunis over the weekend, numbering in the hundreds, demanded both the withdrawal of the draft constitution and Saied’s resignation.
“Even the ‘no’ vote means ‘yes,’ because the president is ruling by decree,” William Lawrence, a former Middle East diplomat and professor of political science at the American University School of International Service told TRT World.
“There's no plan for what happens with the ‘no’ vote, [Saied] will just keep ruling by decree. It’s the same outcome for abstaining,” Lawrence explained.
In May, hundreds of Tunisians demonstrated in support of Kais Saied and the measures he implemented last July, which they see as aimed at purging corrupt politicians. Protesters came out in larger numbers last September, many holding banners against the opposition Ennahda party.
The constitutional referendum aims to replace the 2014 constitution, which ushered in a quasi-parliamentary system after the 2011 Jasmine Revolution.
The new draft, which includes 142 articles, has been slammed by the country’s political parties, human rights organisations and civil society groups for the way it concentrates power in the hands of the president, paving the way for a return to one-man rule.
“It creates a hyper-presidential system — a president with absolute power,” Sharan Grewal, an assistant professor of government at the College of William & Mary, told TRT World.
“Neither the parliament nor the judiciary can exert any real check on the president: they cannot impeach him, they cannot end his exceptional powers in a state of emergency, and they can only bring down his prime minister once, lest they be dissolved,” he explained. “There is no balance of power in this constitution; it is an absolute dictatorship.”
More than 30 organisations, including the National Journalists’ Union and the Tunisian League of Human Rights, have called for the withdrawal of the new constitution.
The Ennahda party, the largest bloc in the dissolved Tunisian parliament, called the referendum “illegitimate” and endorsed the boycott, while the secular Afek Tounes party appealed for Tunisians to participate and vote “no” on Monday.
The powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), which played a key role in the post-2011 transition and had originally backed Saied’s suspension of parliament, has slammed the new constitution, which was drafted by an advisory committee unilaterally appointed by Saied.
Economic grievances unaddressed
Tunisia’s 2014 constitution, considered by many observers as the most progressive in the Arab world, states that rights and freedoms “can be limited only for reasons necessary to a civil and democratic state.” That wording has been erased from the new version.
But Tunisia's economy has been struggling since the uprising and took a dip in recent years due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine. Unemployment stands at nearly 17 percent, while in 2020, the country’s GDP saw a contraction of 9.2 percent — the worst in the Middle East and North Africa region.
The small Mediterranean country has witnessed rising living costs and has accumulated one of the world’s highest public debt-to-GDP ratios. It is seeking a $4 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to support its 2022 budget — in exchange for unpopular reforms that include austerity measures and spending cuts.
“The political successes were not matched by economic successes,” says William Lawrence, adding that, “the revolution occurred more for economic reasons than political reasons, but the response has been more political than economic.”
The underlying economic grievances were, according to Lawrence, left unaddressed — which helped pave the way for Saied’s rise to power in 2019.
“Tunisians started rejecting political parties and voted in a populist president,” Lawrence claims, concluding that, “here we are with a failed democratic transition and a new dictatorship.”