Tunisians go to the polls on Monday in a constitutional referendum that is supposed to create a presidential regime that concentrates power in the hands of head of state Kais Saied. While many international observers see the vote as a mere power grab, at a polling station in the capital Tunis many people said they wanted to turn the page on a decade of political and economic instability as the Arab Spring got worse.
A few voters vote quickly then go out under the eyes of the police in the courtyard of the Mongi Slim school in the Cité Olympique district of Tunis. Thanks to the low turnout at this polling station, it only takes ten minutes for people to vote on the draft new constitution.
There was a stark contrast to the atmosphere of this polling station at the same time and place when Tunisians cast their ballots in the country’s first free and fair legislative elections in October 2014. Eight years ago, there were enormous enthusiasm; some voters showed up draped in the Tunisian flag. This time, a feeling of bitterness, even anger, was all too palpable. All voters polled here said they supported President Saied’s proposed new constitution, hoping to turn their backs on the instability that rocked the country after Tunisia’s Arab Spring began and precipitated the 2011 revolution.
“This vote is very special because it will get rid of the Islamists! This is why we are going to the polls today,” said Adel Ouennich, referring to the prominent role played by the Islamist party Ennahda in post-revolutionary governments. “I am for having an all-powerful president who will give strong leadership to the country,” continued the 56-year-old engineer. “It’s much better than weak governments where everyone passes the buck.”
In fact, Saied already enjoys colossal presidential powers since what many consider his coup in July 2021. Saied had already been in power since October 2019 – but decided to dissolve parliament and get rid of many of the brakes and counterweight put in place by the 2014 Constitution. Independent actors such as the judiciary and the media have been effectively brought under its control.
This referendum aims to codify these changes to the law, entrenching a system that gives Saied sweeping powers without accountability.
But the disillusionment is such among many Tunisians that they see these concerns as mere procedural scruples. “This new constitution isn’t great, but we can improve it as we go along,” said Sarah Boughriba, who came to vote with her parents and son. “We are not afraid to have a bit of dictatorship that cleans up the country,” said the 28-year-old, who has argued that lasting authoritarian rule is not possible in post-Arab Spring Tunisia. . “We got rid of a dictator once so we could start again.”
Not surprisingly, voters are unanimously in favor of Saied’s new constitution. The majority of the opposition is boycotting the elections because they do not want democratic backsliding to be legitimized. Therefore, turnout is the big issue in this referendum. A high abstention rate would allow Saied to claim that the people are “always on his side”. A low abstention rate would weaken its populist rhetoric and the opposition could claim that the majority of Tunisians reject the new regime.
But it’s worth noting how bread-and-butter questions have dominated discussion of what’s at stake in this referendum.
“I have lived in France for five years,” Boughriba said. “I’m homesick, but it pains me to see how things are here. Among my friends, all university graduates emigrate. We are fed up; it can’t go on like this.
A few kilometers away, in the popular district of Ettadhamen, a small but continuous stream of voters marched through a primary school converted into a day polling station. The school is in worse condition than those in central Tunis. Here, too, a feeling of bitterness prevails.
“After the fall of dictator Ben Ali, we thought that with democracy we would get the kind of life that people have in Europe. Our situation has actually become even more difficult. We still earn the same salary but everything has become more expensive and the cost of credit has also increased. We really have to tighten our belts in the last ten days of the month, otherwise we will run out of money,” said Mohsen Bechedly, a high school physical education teacher.
“We Tunisians want a simple life,” the 51-year-old continued. “We’re not talking about a Caribbean vacation, we just want to be able to feed and clothe our children properly. That’s why we are looking for someone to take us out of the last ten years.
This article has been adapted from the original in French.