A year after President Kais Saied’s self-coup, the newly approved constitution has formally established a hyper-presidential system, pausing the Tunisian democratic experiment. The country has, thus, entered a new phase of democratic backsliding as the new, autocratic constitution was adopted with just over a quarter of the eligible electorate taking part in the July 25th referendum – exactly one year after the Tunisian President fired the government and suspended parliament. The constitutional draft was in fact passed with 94.6% voting in favor with a 30.5% turnout, and no quorum required, in a vote that saw the lowest number of Tunisians casting a ballot since the country’s 2011 revolution.
The text, which Kais Saied himself proposed, remakes the political system centralizing unchecked powers in the hands of the head of state and weakening the legislative and judicial branches of the government, both reduced to mere functions rather than real full institutions. It allows him to appoint and sack the prime minister and cabinet without parliamentary approval, to nominate judges, and dissolve the parliament at his discretion, whereas it does not stipulate any mechanism for the President to be dismissed. The new document effectively lets Saied rule by decree until new elections are held in December 2022.
Last month’s vote was perceived as an indicator of Saied’s popularity nearly three years since the political outsider was overwhelmingly elected President. Although the participation rate was weak, it was not as low as many had expected, showing that the chief of state retains some popular backing.
Saied’s supporters, to justify their trust, claim they prefer a strong presidency over a parliamentary democracy to enable the enactment of necessary reforms. They think the amended draft will lessen the influence of the country’s largest opposition party, the Islamist-inspired movement Ennahdha, and stop the political and economic paralysis experienced in the last decade.
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The Tunisians who voted “yes” were not necessarily lending their support to Saied, but rather sanctioning the elite ruling since 2011. “Saied has to keep in mind that a part of his supporters (probably the majority) voted yes not because they even read the new constitution, but rather punishing the politicians who ruled Tunisia for the past decade,” Ghazoua Ltaief, a Tunisian development practitioner commented in the aftermath of the vote.
On voting day, many citizens expressed exasperation with the post-2011 political system, which they blame for the recurring conflicts between parliament and government, holding the political elites responsible for years of misgovernance and social and economic crisis.
The loss of confidence in parties, and in the political process overall, had led a majority of Tunisians to endorse the path Saied paved on July 25th of last year, when he sacked the government and froze parliament assuming power at a critical time of multiple crises aggravated by the pandemic.
On the same basis, a substantial part of the population has continued to back his actions showing determination to break with the past ten years, instead opting for a leader who has presented himself as the man who will “rescue” Tunisia from corruption and “correct” its revolutionary path. The same anti-system sentiment that made the former law professor win the 2019 elections drove the voting behavior of the average Tunisian in July’s referendum.
Saied’s rivals, most of whom were calling for a boycott of the ballot, reject the new constitution and the process through which it was drafted and subsequently adopted as “illegal” and “flawed”, pointing to its lack of transparency and inclusivity. They consider the plebiscite’s credibility further undermined by the scant turnout and the lack of trust in the election commission – once an independent body – now subordinate to the President. This led the vast majority of political parties and major civil society groups to boycott the vote rather than participate through a negative vote.
Adding to the doubts over the legitimacy of the constitution-making process, the voting during the referendum was marred by a number of violations, such as polling stations blocking journalists and observers from reporting on and documenting the vote, and Saied breaching electoral silence with a statement on national TV after casting his vote amid allegations of vote rigging.
Opponents also believe the new draft may result in a return to an autocratic regime. Ahead of the referendum many feared that Saied’s constitutional project might hinder rights and freedoms, and reverse the democratic gains made since the 2011 uprising. Some voiced concern over the removal of many of the checks and balances of the 2014 constitution.
But the 70% of Tunisians who did not turn up to the ballot box were not all active boycotters. A large portion did not vote, saying they were not interested in politics, or they did not understand why the charter needed to be modified, others did not think rewriting the text or changing the political system would bring change to their lives. An exit poll by Sigma Conseil indicated that the referendum took place with 75% absenteeism, 21% of which boycotted and 54% of which did not participate due to lack of interest.
More than ten years into the Jasmine Revolution that toppled long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the only democracy that emerged from the Arab Spring has embarked on an ever more uncertain trajectory following the constitutional referendum.
“The referendum today provides a somber prophecy for what’s to come: authoritarian power riding on the back of a population that is just too damn exhausted to care about who is ruling what and upon which grounds,” Tunisian-American human rights lawyer Wafa Ben-Hassine wrote in a Twitter thread. She, however, specified that with the current socio-economic situation “it won’t be long before things change again.”
Amid a widely divided society, critics see Saied’s latest move as a dramatic setback in the democratic transition route, whilst those in favor argue that he is getting rid of corrupt and incompetent leaders who have been unable to govern the country amid political turmoil, rampant inflation and high unemployment. Yet, one year after the President’s power grab, the North African nation’s economic and social hardship has remained unaddressed with no solutions envisaged in the short run.
“Today’s constitutional ‘referendum’ in Tunisia is another masquerade orchestrated by Kais Saied to legitimize a biased process started a year ago. This populist circus is a logical consequence of a disastrous transition with a status-quo on corruption and zero economic reforms,” Cherif El Kadhi, MENA policy analyst at Access Now, tweeted.
Nedra Cherif, an independent analyst and researcher focusing on the political transitions in the MENA region, noted how those who supported last summer’s coup de force had great expectations that were not satisfied. “As the President has been taking essentially political decisions, without making any improvement to people’s socio-economic conditions, disappointment has grown,” she said.
In a deeply polarized environment, it is unclear if the main civil society associations and opposition parties will succeed in resisting Saied’s actions in the upcoming period. Though a number of political parties and NGOs could become more vocal in their opposition after the summer, they have so far struggled to mobilize large numbers given the widespread lack of faith in the Tunisian elites. In addition, the factionalized centers of opposition are unable to rally together against the President’s power consolidation due to internal divisions, and do not seem ready to cooperate and compromise, which makes the possibility of a unified front unlikely in the foreseeable period.
“The opposition doesn’t possess the popular mobilization capability needed to counter the President’s course of action,” Cherif suggested hinting at the general mistrust vis-à-vis the political class.
The researcher observed that there are currently “no efforts” from either of the camps standing for and against Saied’s plan to engage in a dialogue and “find a middle ground” – a hurdle that is likely to stay unless divides between the resistance forces are overcome, and key actors in the society join forces in the face of the escalating political and economic crises.
While President Saied and his partisans maintain that a centralized leadership is necessary to avert the political deadlock of the post-revolution period, it remains to be seen whether one-man rule can deliver where successive governments have failed.