Tunisians went to the polls on Monday to vote on a new constitution drafted by a committee appointed by the country’s President Kais Saied and designed to usher in a presidential system to replace the current parliamentary one that some have blamed for the squabbles between Tunisia’s political parties that have led to government paralysis and the country’s economic problems.
In response to mounting popular discontent, Saied declared a state of emergency in Tunisia on 25 July last year, suspending the parliament and appointing a caretaker government headed by Najla Bouden. While cheered by many Tunisians, the actions were seen by many prominent political forces as a setback on the path to democracy that the country has been following since the overthrow of former president Zine Al-Abidine ben Ali in the 2011 Revolution.
In a televised address on Thursday, Saied appealed to Tunisians to vote yes to the new constitution in order to “realise the aims of the revolution” and to prevent what he described as the “decrepitude of the state.” Defending it against charges levelled by critics, he said the new constitution would not lead the country back to dictatorship because it upheld fundamental rights and freedoms and embodied “the spirit of the revolution and the spirit of reform.”
The new constitution enhances the powers of the president, and although it expands the legislature, it diminishes its powers to check the executive. It retains the right of the president to rule by decree until a new parliament is formed in the legislative elections set for December. The president also has the power to propose legislation and is solely responsible for making treaties and drafting the budget, according to the text of the constitution published in Tunisia’s official gazette.
Saied said in his address that the new constitution reduced the powers of the parliament in order to prevent any one party from dominating the decision-making process, thereby averting the sharp polarisation that has been seen in Tunisia since the previous constitution was adopted in 2014.
The new constitution introduces a bicameral legislature consisting of an Assembly of Representatives and a Chamber of the Regions. The latter is meant to strengthen the participation of the provinces in government and to break parliamentary deadlocks. Saied said that the constitution gave the parliament the power to oversee the government while preventing any single party from monopolising control over it.
Tunisia’s Islamist-oriented Ennahda Party, which had dominated the previous parliament, boycotted the referendum, describing it as an “illegal process” and a “sham.” In a statement released on Monday evening, party leader Rachid Al-Ghannouchi accused Saied of instructing the electorate on how to vote and breaking the electoral silence prescribed by law.
Tunisia’s powerful General Labour Union (UGTT) told its members and supporters that they should decide for themselves whether or not to vote in the referendum.
According to Tunisia’s Supreme Electoral Commission, more than nine million people registered to vote in the referendum. Turnout was estimated at just above 27 per cent, while the figure for Tunisians abroad was very low, according to preliminary figures, amounting to only seven per cent of those eligible.
The law governing the referendum did not stipulate the minimum percentage that would have to vote before the result became legally binding. The vote took place on an official holiday.
While ordinary Tunisians had few reservations about the text of the new constitution in the lead up to the referendum, the country’s opposition parties intensified their campaigns against the presidential system. But the demonstrations they organised gained little support because of the parties’ dismal record while in power over the past few years.
Incessant party rivalries and internal machinations have hampered the government’s ability to meet Tunisians’ needs and aspirations, generating widespread disillusionment. Many have lost their confidence in political forces that have been seen as fighting over power and financial gain while failing to provide solutions to people’s problems.
When Saied dissolved the parliament and dismissed the government last year, the parties had such a low standing among the public that he had little difficulty maintaining control and advancing his vision of how the country should be run.
The main argument being presented by rights advocates and the political parties against the new constitution is that it will drag the country backwards after its having emerged as a successful model for the region following the Arab Spring Revolutions in 2011.
At one point, it appeared that Tunisia might go the way of other Arab Spring countries when Islamist and secularist forces clashed violently in 2013 and 2014. However, it managed to overcome the crisis thanks to the dialogue initiated by NGOs and unions led by the UGTT, which was crowned with the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts.
However, the success proved shaky as the political parties were soon at one another’s throats once again, hobbling the government while the economy teetered and standards of living deteriorated.
Tunisia has been gripped by soaring unemployment and inflation, aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian war in Ukraine. The financial crisis has compelled the government to enter into negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over a loan deal in exchange for a package of reforms.
An IMF delegation arrived in Tunisia in early July, and at the end of a meeting with government officials last week it announced that good progress had been made on talks regarding the types of reforms that need to be introduced.
Experts say that the government is negotiating a two billion Euro loan with the IMF. The talks are expected to gain impetus as a result of the referendum on the new constitution, since this will give Saied’s government greater legitimacy at the negotiating table and in implementing reforms.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.