Tunisian president hails constitutional referendum set to boost executive power
Issued on: 26/07/2022 – 20:25
Tunisian President Kais Saied declared Tuesday that the country was moving “from despair to hope” after a referendum almost certain to approve a new constitution that concentrates nearly all powers in his office.
But the president’s rivals accused the Saied-controlled electoral board of “fraud” and said his referendum – which was marked by an official turnout of little more than a quarter of the 9.3 million electorate – had “failed”.
Monday’s vote came a year to the day after the president sacked the government and suspended parliament in a dramatic blow to the only lasting democracy to have emerged from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
For some Tunisians, Saied’s moves sparked fears of a return to autocracy. But they were welcomed by others, fed up with high inflation, unemployment, political corruption and a system they felt had brought few improvements.
There had been little doubt the “Yes” campaign to approve the new constitution would win, and an exit poll suggested that votes cast were overwhelmingly in favour.
Most of Saied’s rivals called for a boycott, and while turnout was low, it was higher than the single figures many had expected: at least 27.5 percent, according to ISIE, the electoral board.
“Tunisia has entered a new phase,” Saied told celebrating supporters after polling closed. “What the Tunisian people did … is a lesson to the world, and a lesson to history on a scale that the lessons of history are measured on,” he said.
The National Salvation Front opposition alliance accused the electoral board of falsifying turnout figures. NSF head Ahmed Nejib Chebbi said the figures were “inflated and don’t fit with what observers saw on the ground”.
The electoral board “isn’t honest and impartial, and its figures are fraudulent”, he said.
‘Opaque and illegal’, opponents say
Saied, a 64-year-old law professor, dissolved parliament and seized control of the judiciary and the electoral commission on July 25 last year.
His opponents say the moves aimed to install an autocracy over a decade after the fall of former dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, while his supporters say they were necessary after years of corruption and political turmoil.
“After 10 years of disappointment and total failure in the management of state and the economy, the Tunisian people wanted to get rid of the old and take a new step, whatever the results are,” said Noureddine al-Rezgui, a bailiff.
A poll of “Yes” voters by state television suggested “reforming the country and improving the situation” along with “support for Kais Saied/his project” were their main motivations.
Thirteen percent cited being “convinced by the new constitution”.
Rights groups have warned the draft gives vast, unchecked powers to the presidency, allows him to appoint a government without parliamentary approval and makes him virtually impossible to remove from office.
Said Benarbia, regional director of the International Commission of Jurists, told AFP the new constitution would “give the president almost all powers and dismantle any check on his rule”.
“The process was opaque and illegal, the outcome is illegitimate,” Benarbia added.
Saied has repeatedly threatened his opponents in recent months, issuing video diatribes against unnamed foes he describes as “germs”, “snakes” and “traitors”. On Monday, he promised to hold to account “all those who have committed crimes against the country”.
Saied could ‘now do whatever he wants’
Analyst Abdellatif Hannachi said the results mean Saied “can now do whatever he wants without taking anyone else into account”.
“The question now is: What is the future of opposition parties and organisations?” Hannachi said.
Monday’s vote was also seen as a gauge of Saied’s personal popularity, almost three years since the political outsider won a landslide in Tunisia’s 2019 presidential election, its third since the 2011 revolution.
Hassen Zargouni, head of pollster Sigma Conseil, said that of 7,500 participants questioned, 92-93 percent voted “Yes”.
Tunisia is set to hold parliamentary elections in December. Until then, “Kais Saied will have more powers than a pharaoh, a Middle Ages Caliph or the (Ottoman-era) Bey of Tunis”, said political scientist Hamadi Redissi.
Participation in elections has gradually declined since the 2011 revolution, from just over half in a parliamentary poll months after Ben Ali’s ouster to 32 percent in 2019.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)