Tunisia backs new constitution, granting president more power in last ‘Arab Spring’ democracy

A new Tunisian constitution that the opposition warns could dismantle the country’s democracy by expanding presidential powers is expected to take effect after a referendum on Monday that appeared to pass easily but with low turnout.

President Kais Saied toppled parliament last year and ruled by decree, saying the country needed to be saved from years of paralysis by rewriting the democratic constitution introduced after Tunisia’s 2011 “Arab spring” revolution.

Opposition parties boycotted the referendum, accusing Saied of a coup and saying the new constitution he published less than a month ago portended a step backwards towards autocracy.

The new constitution gives the president power over the government and the judiciary, while removing checks on his authority and weakening parliament.

Meanwhile, Tunisia faces an impending economic crisis and is seeking an International Monetary Fund (IMF) rescue package – issues that worried ordinary people far more in the past year than the political crisis.

There was no minimum level of participation for the measure to be approved and the electoral commission put the preliminary turnout at just 27.5%.

Shortly after an exit poll was published by Sigma Conseil indicating a 92.3% “yes” vote, hundreds of Saied supporters gathered on central Habib Bourguiba avenue to celebrate.

“Sovereignty is for the people”, “The people want to purify the country”, they sang, dismissing concerns about a return to autocracy.

“We are not afraid of anything. Only the corrupt and the officials who looted the state will be afraid,” said Noura bin Ayad, a 46-year-old woman who carries a Tunisian flag.

Saied’s initial moves against parliament last year seemed wildly popular with Tunisians as thousands flocked to the streets to support him, unleashing fury on political parties they blamed for years of misrule and decline.

However, as Tunisia’s economy worsened last year with little intervention from Saied, his support appeared to wane.

An opposition coalition, including Islamist Ennahda, the largest party in the dissolved parliament, said Saied “failed miserably to secure popular support for his coup” and called on him to step down.

The low turnout rate is not easily comparable to previous elections because Tunisia now automatically registers voters. The previous lowest turnout rate was 41% in 2019 for the parliament that Saied dissolved.

Opponents of the president also questioned the integrity of a vote conducted by an electoral commission whose council Saied replaced this year, and with fewer independent observers than in Tunisia’s previous elections.

Casting his own vote on Monday, Saied hailed the referendum as the foundation of a new republic.

Western democracies that saw Tunisia as the only Arab Spring success story have yet to comment on the proposed new constitution, although they urged Tunisia last year to return to the democratic path.

“I’m frustrated with all of them. I’d rather enjoy this hot day than go to vote,” said Samia, a woman sitting with her husband and teenage son on La Marsa beach near Tunis, talking about Tunisian politicians.

Outside a cafe in the capital, Samir Slimane said he was not interested in voting.

“I have no hope of change. Kais Saied won’t change a thing. He just wants to have all the powers,” she said.

The economic decline since 2011 has left many Tunisians angry at the parties they have ruled since the revolution and disillusioned with the political system they have run.

To deal with the economic hardship, the government hopes to obtain a $4 billion loan from the IMF, but faces strong opposition from unions to necessary reforms, including cuts to fuel and food subsidies.

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