Tunisians vote on Constitution out of discord
Tunisians vote Monday in a referendum imposed by the head of state, Kais Saied, on a controversial new constitution that strengthens the powers of the president and could return the country to a dictatorial regime similar to before 2011.
The country, plunged into economic difficulties, aggravated by the Covid epidemic and then the war in Ukraine, has also been in the grip of a deep political crisis since the president seized all the powers a year ago, arguing the country’s ungovernability.
A handful of six or seven voters showed up at the opening at 5:00 GMT of the polling station on rue de Marseille in the center of the capital, AFP journalists noted. “How important is the referendum? It’s important for my country, the future of my country,” Tarek Jemai, a 42-year-old farm worker, told AFP.
Referring to a “historic choice”, the president accompanied by his wife Ichraf Chebil after having voted in the bourgeois district of Cité Ennasr, called on the Tunisian people to go to the polls to “establish a new Republic based on true freedom, true justice and national dignity”.
The draft Constitution establishes an ultra-presidential regime granting vast powers to the Head of State, breaking with the parliamentary system in place since 2014, a source of conflict between Parliament and the government.
Participation is the main issue of the referendum for which no quorum is required and where the yes is given preference, the major opposition parties having called for a boycott of the ballot.
According to the Isie electoral authority, 9,296,064 Tunisians have registered to participate in this referendum. For the moment, the participation rate of the 356,291 Tunisians abroad is low, ranging from 4 to 6%, according to Farouk Bouasker, the president of Isie.
In the new text of the Constitution, the president appoints the head of government and the ministers and can dismiss them as he pleases, without the need to obtain the confidence of Parliament. It ratifies the laws and can submit to Parliament legislative texts which have “priority”. A second chamber to represent the regions will be established to counterbalance the current Assembly of Representatives (deputies).
Sadok Belaïd, the jurist appointed by Mr. Saied to draw up the new Constitution, disavowed the final text, believing that it could “open the way to a dictatorial regime”.
The opposition and many NGOs have denounced a text “tailor-made” for Mr. Saïed, the absence of checks and balances and the risk of authoritarian drift of a president not accountable to anyone.
– “Heading correction” –
The opposition, both the Islamist-inspired movement Ennahdha, Mr. Saied’s pet peeve, and the Free Destourian Party of Abir Moussi, called for a boycott of the ballot, citing an “illegal process” and without consultation.
The powerful UGTT trade union center, less present in political life than before, did not give any voting instructions.
An inscrutable and complex character, President Saied has exercised power in an increasingly solitary way for the past year.
Aged 64, Mr. Saied considers his overhaul of the Constitution as an extension of the “correction of course” initiated on July 25, 2021 when, citing political and economic blockages, he dismissed his Prime Minister and froze Parliament before dissolve it in March, jeopardizing the only democracy that emerged from the Arab Spring.
For researcher Youssef Cherif, “the fact that people can still express themselves freely, that they can vote no (in the referendum) without going to prison shows that we are not in the traditional pattern of dictatorship”.
But the question could arise, according to him, in the post-Saied period, with a Constitution which “could build an authoritarian regime resembling the regimes that Tunisia knew before 2011”, the dictatorship of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and the regime autocratic independence hero Habib Bourguiba.
In the aftermath of the vote, the main challenge for the president will remain the serious economic situation with sluggish growth (around 3%), high unemployment (40% among young people), galloping inflation and the increase in the number of poor people to 4 millions of people.
Tunisia, in deep financial crisis with a debt exceeding 100% of GDP, has been negotiating for months a new loan with the IMF which, before the referendum, reported “satisfactory progress” towards an agreement, but will require in return for sacrifices, likely to provoke reactions in the street.
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