Tunisians Approve New Constitution That Undercuts Democracy

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Tunisians approved a new Constitution that cements the one-man rule instituted by President Kais Saied over the past year, according to the results of a referendum released on Tuesday, dealing a body blow to a democracy built with immense effort and high hopes after the overthrow of the country’s dictator more than a decade ago.

Tunisia, where the Arab Spring uprisings began more than a decade ago, was internationally lauded as the only democracy to survive the revolts that swept the region. But that chapter effectively ended with the passage of the new charter, which enshrines the almost absolute power that Mr. Saied conferred on himself a year ago when he suspended Parliament and fired his prime minister.

Still the referendum on Monday was undercut by mass boycotts, voter apathy and a setup heavily tilted toward Mr. Saied. The Constitution was approved by 94.6 percent of voters, according to the results released by the electoral authority.

“The masses that came out today across the country show the significance of this moment,” Mr. Saied said in an address to cheering supporters in downtown Tunis a few hours after the polls closed. “Today marks a new chapter of hope and turning the page on poverty, despair and injustice.”

In his remarks, Mr. Saied denied any tendency toward authoritarianism. But the new Constitution will return Tunisia to a presidential system like the one it had under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the authoritarian ruler toppled in the so-called Jasmine Revolution of 2011. It also weakens Parliament and most other checks on the president’s power while giving the head of state the ultimate authority to form a government, appoint judges and present laws.

It preserves most of the 2014 Constitution’s clauses concerning rights and liberties. But in contrast to the previous Constitution, which divides power between Parliament and the president, the new one demotes the legislature and the judiciary to something more akin to civil servants, granting the president alone the authority to appoint government ministers and judges and weakening Parliament’s ability to withdraw confidence from the government.

Capping years of political paralysis, the referendum could spell the end of a young democracy that many Tunisians had come to view as corrupt and woefully inadequate at guaranteeing bread, freedom and dignity — the ideals they chanted for in 2011.

But with turnout low at about 30 percent and most major political parties boycotting the vote to avoid lending it greater legitimacy, Mr. Saied now stands on slippery ground, his ability to carry out further reforms in question.

The inability of the democratic system to deliver good jobs and put food on the table, clean up widespread corruption or produce much-needed reforms pushed many Tunisians to look to Mr. Saied for a rescue. The former constitutional law professor was elected to the presidency in 2019 largely because he was a political outsider.

By 2021, two-thirds of Tunisians associated democracy with instability, indecision and a weak economy, according to an Arab Barometer survey.

When Mr. Saied seized power a year ago, celebrations erupted in the streets of the capital, Tunis. Polls showed an overwhelming majority of Tunisians supported his actions, even as opponents and analysts called them a coup. But he declared his power grab necessary to fulfill the long-unmet goals of the revolution and rid the country of corruption.

“If you tell me about democracy or human rights and all that stuff, we haven’t seen any of it in the last 10 years,” said Rafaa Baouindi, 50, a bank employee who cast a “yes” vote in downtown Tunis on Monday. “What is happening today, I call it a new era, in a good sense. It can’t be worse than it was over the last decade.”

He said he did not mind the Constitution’s concentration of powers in the hands of the president. “A boat needs one captain,” he said. “Personally, I need one captain.”

For supporters, an added spur to voting for Mr. Saied’s new Constitution was the dread that Ennahda, the Islamist political party that dominated Parliament before Mr. Saied dissolved it, would return to power. Mr. Saied and his backers stoked that longstanding fear among secular Tunisians during the lead-up to the referendum.

The low turnout, however, reflects the weakening of Mr. Saied’s popular support over the last year, as the economy declined, corruption flourished and the president grew increasingly authoritarian.

Tunisians questioned his focus above all else on putting a new Constitution in place and making other political reforms at a time when the government was struggling to pay wages, the price of bread and other staples were soaring as a result of the war in Ukraine, and decent jobs still seemed far out of reach for many Tunisians.

Mr. Saied lost more support when he started to rule almost exclusively by decree, jailing opponents and critics and using military courts to try them, placing restrictions on the news media and seizing control of formerly independent bodies such as the country’s top judicial oversight council and the elections authority.

Souring on his one-man rule, all but about half a million Tunisians ignored Mr. Saied’s calls to participate in an online survey about the country’s future. But the opposition remained fragmented, and failed to offer credible alternatives to Tunisians with misgivings about Mr. Saied.

Still, the passage of the referendum — if by no means the resounding victory Mr. Saied might have hoped for — was widely expected. Mr. Saied appointed the board of the formerly independent elections authority as well as the committee that drafted the new Constitution, and no minimum participation was required for the referendum to pass.

Those who campaigned against the proposal said the entire process was tilted toward the “yes” side, with government ministers calling for Tunisians to support the new Constitution and state-funded media largely featuring pro-Saied voices.

Massinissa Benlakehal contributed reporting from Tunis, Tunisia.

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