A new Tunisian constitution that the opposition warns may dismantle the country’s democracy by greatly expanding presidential powers is set to take effect after a referendum on Monday that appeared to pass easily but with low turnout.
President Kais Saied ousted the parliament last year and moved to rule by decree, saying the country needed saving from years of paralysis as he rewrote 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 augurs a slide back towards autocracy.
The new constitution gives the president power over both the government and judiciary while removing checks on his authority and weakening the parliament.
Tunisia meanwhile faces a looming economic crisis and is seeking an International Monetary Fund (IMF) rescue package — issues that have preoccupied ordinary people far more over the past year than the political crisis.
There was no minimum level of participation for the measure to pass and the electoral commission put preliminary turnout at only 27.5%.
Soon after an exit poll was published by Sigma Conseil indicating a ‘yes’ vote of 92.3%, hundreds of Saied supporters flocked to the central Habib Bourguiba Avenue to celebrate.
“Sovereignty is for the people”, “The people want to purify the country” they chanted, dismissing concerns over a return to autocracy.
“We’re 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 carrying a Tunisian flag.
Saied’s initial moves against the parliament last year appeared hugely popular with Tunisians, as thousands flooded the streets to support him, venting fury at the political parties they blamed for years of misgovernance and decline.
However, as Tunisia’s economy worsened over the past year with little intervention by Saied, his support appeared to wane.
An opposition coalition including the Islamist Ennahda, the biggest party in the dissolved parliament, said Saied had “miserably failed to secure popular backing for his coup” and urged him to resign.
The low turnout rate is not easily comparable to previous elections because Tunisia now automatically registers voters. The previous lowest participation rate was 41% in 2019 for the parliament that Saied has dissolved.
The president’s opponents have also questioned the integrity of a vote conducted by an electoral commission whose board Saied replaced this year, and with fewer independent observers than for previous Tunisian elections.
Casting his own vote on Monday, Saied hailed the referendum as the foundation of a new republic.
Western democracies that looked to Tunisia as the only success story of the Arab Spring have yet to comment on the proposed new constitution, although they have urged Tunis over the past year to return to the democratic path.
“I’m frustrated by all of them. I’d rather enjoy this hot day than go and vote,” said Samia, a woman sitting with her husband and teenage son on the beach at La Marsa near Tunis, speaking about Tunisian politicians.
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.
Economic decline since 2011 has left many Tunisians angry at the parties that have governed since the revolution and disillusioned with the political system they ran.
To address economic privations, the government hopes to secure a $4 billion loan from the IMF, but faces stiff union opposition to the required reforms, including cuts to fuel and food subsidies.