Home International Fears for Tunisian democracy as Saied holds referendum

Fears for Tunisian democracy as Saied holds referendum

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Tunisians began voting on Monday in a referendum on a new constitution that critics of President Kais Saied fear will dismantle the democracy that emerged from a 2011 revolution by handing him nearly total power.

People cast their ballots at a polling station during a referendum on a new constitution in Tunis, Tunisia July 25, 2022. Picture: Reuters/Zoubeir Souissi

By Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall

TUNIS – Tunisians began voting on Monday in a referendum on a new constitution that critics of President Kais Saied fear will dismantle the democracy that emerged from a 2011 revolution by handing him nearly total power.

The vote is being held on the first anniversary of Saied’s ousting of an elected parliament, when he established emergency rule and began governing by fiat.

Tunisia’s divided opposition parties have called his moves a coup that risks flinging Tunisia back into the autocratic era from before the revolution and putting the final nail into the coffin of the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings.

But amid an economic crisis and deepening hardship, there has been little in the way of protest against Saied, whose power grab last year was welcomed by many Tunisians who were fed up with political bickering and government failure.

It is not clear when the results will be announced after polls close at 2100 GMT. But with little apparent enthusiasm for the vote and a boycott by major parties, analysts expect a “yes” vote with a low turnout.

As voting got under way, few people were out in the humid early morning streets. But at Rue Marseilles polling station in downtown Tunis, Illyes Moujahed was first in line, saying Saied was the only hope.

“I’m here to save Tunisia from collapse. To save it from years of corruption and failure,” he said.

Standing outside a cafe in the capital, Samir Slimane said he was not interested in voting. “I have no hope of change. Kais Saied will not change anything. He only seeks to have all the powers,” he said.

Under rules set by Saied, no minimum level of participation among the 9.2 million registered voters is needed to approve the constitution. He has only stipulated that the constitution will come into effect once the final results are published, and has not said what happens if voters reject it.

Saied has hailed his changes as the foundation of a new republic to put the revolution back on course and end years of political sclerosis and economic stagnation.

“We will establish a new republic, not like the one of the past 10 black years… We want a state of law. The people will have the last word,” Saied said after voting.

Elected in 2019, Saied has said freedoms will be protected.

DISUNITY

The new constitution shifts power back to the presidency and away from parliament, where an Islamist party, Ennahda, has been the biggest faction since the revolution.

Western states which held up Tunisia as an Arab Spring success story have said little about the proposed changes, though Washington criticised Saied in June for undermining democratic institutions after he purged the judiciary.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates showed some support to Saied last year, happy to see the Islamists’ wings clipped. But they have not followed through with badly-needed aid despite Tunisian officials saying some had been pledged.

Groups that oppose Saied have held scattered, small protests in the run-up to the referendum, underlining their disunity.

Ennahda took part in a protest on Saturday, while civil society organisations and smaller parties held one on Friday. A party that backed the pre-revolution autocracy held its own on both days.

Rallies organised by Saied supporters have also drawn few people, and there has been little sign of excitement around the campaign.

Economic decline since 2011 has left many people angry at the parties that have governed since the revolution and disillusioned with the political system they ran.

“I don’t support Saied, but I will vote ‘yes’ in the referendum because those protesting against it are the main cause of our problems for the past decade,” said Mohammed, a Tunis resident.

Of the three parliamentary elections and two presidential elections since the revolution, the lowest turnout, of 41%, was in 2019 for the chamber dissolved by Saied.

A turnout on Monday far below that rate would further call into question the legitimacy of the new constitution.

Saied’s critics say his bid to remake the political system has distracted attention from the economic crisis.

The government hopes to secure a $4 billion loan from the IMF. But it faces stiff union opposition to the required reforms, including cutting fuel and food subsidies.

– REUTERS

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