Tunisia approves new constitution in low turnout vote

Tunisia approved a new constitution granting unlimited powers to President Kais Said, the electoral commission said after a small referendum in which voters overwhelmingly supported the document.

Said’s rivals accused the Said-controlled electoral commission of “fraud” and said his referendum, held on Monday, failed.

On Tuesday evening, the head of the electoral commission, Farouk Boisker, told reporters that the body “announces the adoption of a new draft constitution for the Republic of Tunisia” based on preliminary results: 94.6% of valid ballots voted “yes” with a turnout of 30.5%.

Monday’s vote comes one year after the president fired the government and suspended parliament, dealing a major blow to the only democracy that emerged from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

For some Tunisians, his moves raised fears of a return to autocracy, but others welcomed them, fed up with high inflation and unemployment, political corruption, and a system they felt did little to improve.

There was no doubt that the “yes” campaign would take over, a prediction reflected in an exit poll conducted by independent polling group Sigma Conseil.

Most of Syed’s rivals called for a boycott, and while the turnout was low, it was higher than many expected.

“Tunisia has entered a new phase,” Said told celebrating supporters after the polls closed.

“What the Tunisian people have done is a lesson for the world and a lesson for history on the scale by which the lessons of history are measured,” he said.

But the US State Department said on Tuesday that it noted “concerns that the new constitution includes weakened checks and balances that could jeopardize the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

And the opposition alliance of the National Salvation Front of Tunisia accused the electoral commission of falsifying voter turnout data.

“opaque and illegal”

NSF chief Ahmed Nejib Chebbi said the numbers are “inflated and do not match what observers saw on the ground.”

According to him, the election commission is “dishonest and impartial, and its numbers are falsified.”

Said, 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 moves were intended to establish an autocracy more than a decade after the fall of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but his supporters say they were necessary after years of corruption and political unrest.

“After 10 years of disappointment and a total failure in government and the economy, Tunisians wanted to get rid of the old and take a new step, whatever the results,” said bailiff Noureddine al-Rezgoui.

A “yes” poll of voters conducted by state television found that “reforming the country and improving the situation” along with “supporting Qais Syed/his project” were their main motives.

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

Human rights groups warn that the draft gives fixed, unchecked powers to the president, allows Said to appoint a government without parliamentary approval, and makes it nearly impossible to remove him from office.

Saeed Benarbia, regional director of the International Commission of Jurists, told AFP that the new constitution “will give the president almost all powers and remove any restrictions on his rule.”

“The process was non-transparent and illegal, the result was illegitimate,” he added.

‘whatever he wants’

In recent months, Sayid has repeatedly threatened his enemies, releasing video diatribes against unnamed adversaries, whom he calls “germs”, “snakes” and “traitors”.

On Monday, he vowed to bring to justice “everyone who committed crimes against the country.”

Analyst Abdellatif Khannachi said the results meant Saeed “can now do whatever he wants without taking anyone else into account.”

“The question now is, what is the future of opposition parties and organizations?”

Beyond changing the political system, Monday’s vote was seen as a measure of Syed’s personal popularity, nearly three years after the political underdog won a landslide victory in Tunisia’s first democratic direct presidential election.

The country is now due to hold elections for a castrated parliament in December.

Until then, “Qays Said will have more power than a pharaoh, a medieval caliph or a Tunisian (Ottoman-era) bey,” said political scientist Hamadi Redissi.

Electoral participation has gradually declined since the 2011 revolution, from just over half in parliamentary polls a few months after Ben Ali’s ouster to 32 percent in 2019.