Tunisian president welcomes constitutional referendum aimed at strengthening executive power

Tunisian President Kais Saied said on Tuesday the country was moving “from despair to hope” after an almost certain referendum to approve a new constitution that concentrates nearly all power in his office.

But the president’s rivals have accused the Saied-controlled electoral council of “fraud” and said his referendum – which was marked by an official turnout of just over a quarter of the 9.3 million voters – had “failed”.

Monday’s vote came a year to the day after the president sacked the government and suspended parliament, dealing a dramatic blow to the only enduring democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

For some Tunisians, Saied’s moves have raised fears of a return to autocracy. But they were welcomed by others, tired of high inflation, unemployment, political corruption and a system they said had brought little improvement.

There was little doubt that the “Yes” campaign to approve the new constitution would win, and an exit poll suggested the votes cast were overwhelmingly in favour.

Most of Saied’s rivals called for a boycott, and although turnout was low, it exceeded the numbers many had expected: at least 27.5%, according to the ISIE, the electoral council.

“Tunisia has entered a new phase,” Saied told supporters after the polls closed. “What the Tunisian people have done (…) is a lesson for the world, and a lesson for history on a scale on which the lessons of history are measured,” he said.

The National Salvation Front opposition alliance accused the electoral council of falsifying turnout figures. NSF chief Ahmed Nejib Chebbi said the numbers were “inflated and do not match what observers have seen on the ground”.

The electoral council “is not honest and impartial, and its figures are fraudulent”, he said.

Opaque and illegal, say opponentsSaied, a 64-year-old law professor, dissolved parliament and took control of the judiciary and electoral commission on July 25 last year.

His opponents say the measures were aimed at installing an autocracy more than 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 unrest .

“After 10 years of disappointment and total failure in the management of the state and the economy, the Tunisian people wanted to get rid of the old and take a new step, whatever the results”, said Noureddine al-Rezgui, usher.

A poll of “Yes” voters by state television suggested that “the reform of the country and the improvement of the situation” as well as “support for Kais Saied/his project” were their main motivations.

Thirteen percent said they were “convinced by the new constitution”.

Rights groups have warned that the bill grants sweeping unchecked powers to the presidency, allows it to appoint a government without parliament’s approval and makes it virtually impossible to remove it from office.

Said Benarbia, regional director of the International Commission of Jurists, told AFP that the new constitution “would give the president almost full power and remove all checks on his power”.

“The process was opaque and illegal, the result is illegitimate,” Benarbia added.

Saied has repeatedly threatened his opponents in recent months, launching video rants against unnamed enemies he describes as “germs”, “snakes” and “traitors”. On Monday, he promised to hold “all those who have committed crimes against the country” to account.

Saied can ‘now do whatever he wants’ Analyst Abdellatif Hannachi said the results mean Saied ‘can now do whatever he wants regardless of anyone else’.

“The question now is: what is the future of opposition parties and organizations? Hannachi said.

Monday’s vote was also seen as an indicator of Saied’s personal popularity, nearly three years after the political outsider won a landslide victory in Tunisia’s 2019 presidential election, the third since the 2011 revolution.

Hassen Zargouni, head of the Sigma Conseil polling institute, said that out of 7,500 participants questioned, 92 to 93% voted “Yes”.

Tunisia is due to hold legislative elections in December. By then, “Kais Saied will have more power than a pharaoh, a medieval caliph or the (Ottoman-era) bey of Tunis,” said political scientist Hamadi Redissi.

Turnout in elections has gradually declined since the 2011 revolution, dropping from just over half in a parliamentary poll a few months after Ben Ali’s ousting to 32% in 2019.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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