Tunisians vote for a constitution that could threaten their democracy

CAIRO. Tunisians voted on Monday in a referendum on new constitution this would greatly expand the powers of the president, who over the past year has pushed other branches of government aside to rules alone.

If approved, the referendum will consolidate the steps taken by President Qais Syed exactly one year ago to consolidate power, weaken parliament and other measures of control over the president, while giving the head of state the ultimate authority to form a government and appoint judges. and propose laws.

Such changes, according to opponents, would mean the end democratic system built by Tunisia after the overthrow of the dictatorship a decade ago, when anti-government protests in a small Tunisian town sparked uprisings across the Middle East. The new constitution will return Tunisia to presidential system very similar to what was under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, an authoritarian ruler, overthrown during the country’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011.

mr. Said said changes are needed to cleanse the country of corruption and end the paralysis of its political system.

After a hasty drafting process that largely ruled out opposition, the structure and even timing of the referendum largely favored a new constitution approved and partly written by Mr. Trump. Said. Most of the major political parties called on their supporters to boycott the vote, expecting a low turnout. The results are expected on Tuesday.

Alone among the countries affected by the Arab Spring, Tunisia has established a democracy, albeit a fragile and often dysfunctional one. She successfully held three free and fair elections, wrote a well-established and inclusive constitution, established independent institutions, and guaranteed freedom of speech and the press.

However, he failed to expand economic opportunities or eradicate corruption.

It seems that the post-revolutionary era is over.

The 2014 constitution, adopted three years after the fall of the president. Ben Ali divided power between the president and parliament to limit the power of any president.

The new constitution retains most of the rights and freedoms clauses of the 2014 constitution, but relegates parliament to a minor branch of government, with only the president having the power to appoint the prime minister, cabinet, and judges. Parliament’s ability to withdraw confidence from the government is weakened.

The president can declare a state of emergency in the event of “imminent danger” without time limits or oversight, and there is no provision for his suspension.

If a mr. Said wins, it won’t be a big surprise. His opponents have pointed out that he controls the formerly independent electoral body as well as the committee that drafted the new constitution, and it did not require minimal participation in a referendum to pass it.

Those who opposed the proposal said the whole process was skewed in Mr. K’s eyes. Favored by Said. Several anti-referendum rallies were canceled by local officials for security reasons, government ministers appointed by Mr. Syed approved the project, and Mr. Syed himself twice urged the public to vote in favor.

In the run-up to the vote, state-funded television and radio stations devoted much airtime to coverage of supporters, to the exclusion of most opponents. Siloviki with anti-Said protests several hundred people over the weekend with pepper spray, shoving and arrests.

The date for the referendum in July meant that many well-educated Tunisians who were on summer vacation were voted out.

“People who insist on yes, the whole administration and all supporters of Said are deeply organized, and the other side that wants to say no is not necessarily in the city,” said Fadel Abdelkefi, president of Afek. Townes, one of the few political parties that have chosen to participate in the vote.

“When the president is pushing people to vote and the whole city is covered in ads urging people to vote yes, it’s really an unfair situation,” he added.

The vote took place on the first anniversary of Mr. Said firing his prime minister and suspending parliament amid nationwide protests over a collapsing economy and the government’s failed response to the coronavirus pandemic.

A year ago, cheering crowds filled the Tunisian capital, cheering Mr. He is hailed as the savior, and the power grab a desperately needed cure for Tunisia’s corrupt, floundering political system.

By contrast, in July of this year, most Tunisians were listless and aloof, paying little attention to Mr. Black. Said’s calls for their support on the ballot. The inexorable heat kept them locked up; summer holidays kept them on the beach; current concerns about high prices and low wages, as the economy is heading towards ruin kept some too busy to vote. Political reform was thus not the main concern, analysts said.

“We are discussing the fate of the nation here, but many people have lost interest and faith in this whole process,” said Amin Ghali, director of the Tunisian-based Al-Kawakibi Center for the Transition to Democracy.

Preparations for the referendum have increased Mr. V’s chances in favor of Said so much that “it’s already a falsification,” Mr. Ghali said.

If turnout is low, this will reflect growing disillusionment with the president, if not outright opposition.

mr. Syed urged Tunisians to vote “yes” “to fix the course of the revolution,” as he promised to do when he seized power last July. But many Tunisians who sang of opportunity, dignity and freedom during the 2011 uprising have fallen less and less true to those ideals over the past year.

wildly popular a year ago Sayyed lost support as he prioritized political reforms over a failing economy, even as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent prices of bread and other staples skyrocketing and exacerbated hardship for many Tunisians.

Many political activists, civil society representatives, judges, lawyers and political parties initially supported Mr Action Said. But hey lost support after he began to rule by decree, arresting opponents, trying them in a military court and placing his appointees at the head of previously independent state bodies, including the election commission.

One study commissioned by an international organization found that the percentage of respondents who viewed him highly favorably fell by nearly 20 points between November and May. The same poll, taken before the opposition started calling for a boycott, showed that less than 30 percent of Tunisians were determined to participate in the referendum. This is seven points less than in February, when this question was last asked.

An early concrete sign that Tunisians were fighting back. Mr. Said’s political proposals came in March, when less than 5 percent of took part in an online survey according to national priorities.

Steadfast, Mr. Said soon appointed a committee of experts in constitutional law to draft a new constitution. There were some early objections from members who said their names appeared on the committee’s list despite not agreeing to join. Some of G. Said’s former allies rejected the process because they said it was not inclusive enough.

But the panel produced a draft within a few weeks.

This was in stark contrast to the 2014 constitution, which the elected assembly debated for more than two years.

At the end of May, the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe made up of independent experts in constitutional law, said the drafting of the constitution was neither legal nor credible. mr. In response, Said criticized the group and then expelled its members from Tunisia.

After the revision of the proposed constitution, G. Said appeared at the end of June with a version that gave the president even more powers than the previous version. Even the expert G. Said personally chose to write the original version of “Zadok Belaid”. warned that the modified version “will pave the way for a shameful dictatorship”.

However, according to a May poll by an international organization earlier this year, the president remained Tunisia’s most trusted leader.

The lowest rating of any Tunisian leader in the poll was that of the head of Ennahda, the Islamist political party that dominated parliament before Said dissolved him. Many Tunisians despise the party, blaming it for a decade government dysfunction.

Analysts say that helps explain the meager support for the referendum. Before the vote, Saeed’s supporters warned that if it failed, En-Nahda would return to power and impose his conservative Islamic ideology on the country, citing a bogeyman that had frightened many Tunisians since the dictatorship.

However, even with a new constitution, the stalemate around Mr. Said’s reforms, his legitimacy and his failure to fix the economy means that Tunisia is likely to remain mired in crisisanalysts said.

“It seems like a vanity project for him, but what’s next?” said Gordon Gray, a fellow at the Center for American Progress who was the US ambassador to Tunisia from 2009 to 2012. “What social contract does Said propose? In fact, there are no rights and no economic growth, which is not the most attractive thing. How the Tunisians will react to this is the question.”