Tunisia: The Constitution about to be adopted, strong abstention

The Constitution of Tunisian President Kais Saied, which clearly strengthens the powers of the Head of State, is about to be adopted after the almost certain victory of the “yes” vote in a referendum marked by a very strong abstention.

As the main opposition parties boycotted Monday’s poll, what was at stake was turnout, which stood at at least 27.54% of the 9.3 million registered voters, according to the electoral authority Isie. By comparison, the last legislative elections in 2019 attracted 32% of voters.

Final results are expected later Tuesday.

“Between 92 and 93%” of voters approved Mr. Saied’s Constitution, assured AFP overnight the director of the Sigma Conseil polling institute, Hassen Zargouni, on the basis of exit polls, while this project makes the country, the cradle of the Arab Spring, run the risk of a return to an authoritarian regime.

After the announcement of this estimate, hundreds of supporters of the president celebrated on Bourguiba Avenue in the heart of the capital, sounding their horns or waving the national flag.

“Kais, we are sacrificing for you,” some shouted while singing the national anthem.

Around 01:00 GMT, the president appeared in front of a jubilant crowd. “Tunisia has entered a new phase”, he said, assuring that the turnout “would have been higher if the vote had taken place over two days”.

The voters were above all “the most aggrieved middle classes, adults who feel cheated economically, politically and socially”, analyzed the director of Sigma Conseil.

Tunisia, facing an economic crisis, aggravated by the Covid and the war in Ukraine on which it depends for its wheat imports, has been very polarized since Saied, democratically elected in 2019, seized all the powers on July 25 2021.

Two large blocs voted “yes”, said Zargouni, “the modernist part of the country”, sometimes nostalgic for dictator Ben Ali and the “fan club” of unconditional supporters of Saied, especially young people.

“Authoritarian drift”

“We have great hope in July 25. Tunisia will prosper from today,” Imed Hezzi, a 57-year-old waiter, told AFP.

The controversial new fundamental law imposed by the president grants vast powers to the head of state, breaking with the parliamentary system in place since 2014.

The president appoints the head of government and the ministers and can dismiss them as he sees fit. He can submit to Parliament legislative texts which have “priority”. A second chamber will represent the regions, as a counterweight to the current Assembly of Representatives (deputies).

The opposition and many NGOs have denounced a Constitution “tailor-made” for Mr. Saied, and the risk of authoritarian drift of a president not accountable to anyone.

Sadok Belaïd, the lawyer commissioned by Mr. Saied to draw up the new Constitution, disavowed the final text, believing that it could “open the way to a dictatorial regime”.

“No safeguards”

President Saied, 64, exercises power in an increasingly solitary way. He 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 dissolving it in March.

The new text “gives almost all the powers to the president and dismantles all the systems and institutions that can control him,” Said Benarbia, regional director of the International Commission of Jurists ICJ, told AFP.

“None of the safeguards that could protect Tunisians from violations similar to the Ben Ali (regime) exist”, according to Benarbia, convinced that the new Constitution “codifies autocracy”.

For analyst Youssef Cherif, spaces of freedom remain guaranteed but the question of a return to a dictatorial regime similar to that of the former autocrat of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, could arise “after Kais Saied “.

For most of the population, the priority is elsewhere: sluggish growth (around 3%), high unemployment (nearly 40% of young people), galloping inflation and the increase in the number of poor to 4 million people.

Tunisia, on the verge of default with a debt of more than 100% of GDP, is negotiating a new loan with the IMF which has a good chance of being granted but will require in return sacrifices likely to provoke social unrest.

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