Tunisia’s constitutional referendum marked by low turnout as opposition boycotts

A new Tunisian constitution that the opposition says could dismantle the country’s democracy by dramatically expanding presidential powers, is set to come into effect after a referendum on Monday that appeared to pass easily but with low turnout.

President Kais Saied overthrew parliament last year and swept to power by decree, saying the country needed to be rescued from years of paralysis as he rewrote the democratic constitution introduced after Tunisia’s revolution. Arab Spring” of 2011.

Opposition parties boycotted the referendum, accusing Saied of a coup and saying the new constitution he published less than a month ago heralds a return to autocracy.

The new constitution gives the president power over the government and the judiciary while removing checks on his authority and weakening parliament.

Meanwhile, Tunisia faces a looming economic crisis and is seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – issues that have concerned ordinary people far more over the past year than the political crisis.

There was no minimum level of turnout for the measure to pass, and the electoral commission estimated the preliminary turnout at just 27.5%.

Shortly after the publication of an exit poll by Sigma Conseil indicating a 92.3% “yes”, hundreds of Saied supporters flocked to the central Avenue Habib Bourguiba to celebrate.

“Sovereignty belongs to the people”, “The people want to purify the country”, they chanted, dismissing concerns about a return to autocracy.

“We are not afraid of anything. Only the corrupt and officials who looted the state will be afraid,” said Noura bin Ayad, a 46-year-old woman carrying a Tunisian flag.

Saied’s early moves against parliament last year seemed hugely popular with Tunisians, as thousands took to the streets in support of him, venting their fury at political parties they blamed for years of bad luck. governance and decline.

However, as Tunisia’s economy deteriorated over the past year with little intervention from Saied, his support seemed to fade.

“Now that we have given him a new political mandate to confront political lobbies, we ask Saied to take care of our economic situation, prices and food supply,” said Naceur, one of his supporters. celebrating Monday.

Questioning integrityAn opposition coalition including Islamist Ennahda, the largest party in the dissolved parliament, said Saied had “woefully failed to gain popular support for his coup” and urged him to resign.

The low turnout is not easily comparable to previous elections as Tunisia now registers voters automatically. The previous lowest turnout was 41% in 2019 for the parliament that Saied dissolved.

Opponents of the president have also questioned the integrity of a vote conducted by an electoral commission whose board replaced Saied this year, and with fewer independent observers than in previous Tunisian elections.

Casting his own vote on Monday, Saied hailed the referendum as the founding of a new republic.

Western democracies that saw Tunisia as the sole success story of the Arab Spring have yet to comment on the draft new constitution, though they have urged Tunis over the past year to return to a democratic path.

“I’m frustrated with all of them. I’d rather enjoy this hot day than go to vote,” said Samia, a woman sitting with her husband and teenage son on La Marsa beach near Tunis, speaking of Tunisia’s politicians.

In front of a café in the capital, Samir Slimane declared that he was not interested in the vote.

“I have no hope for change. Kais Saied won’t change anything. He is only looking to have all the power,” he said.

The economic decline since 2011 has left many Tunisians angry with the parties that have ruled since the revolution and disappointed with the political system they ruled.

To address economic deprivation, the government hopes to secure a $4 billion loan from the IMF, but faces fierce union opposition to needed reforms, including cutting fuel and food subsidies.

(Reuters)

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