Tunisians Vote on Constitution That Could Threaten Their Democracy

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

If approved, the referendum will enshrine steps taken by President Kais Saied starting exactly a year ago to center power in his own hands, weakening Parliament and other checks on the president while giving the head of state the ultimate authority to form a government, appoint judges and propose laws.

Such changes, opponents say, would signal the end of the democratic system Tunisia built after casting off dictatorship a decade ago, when antigovernment protests in a small Tunisian town kindled uprisings across the Middle East. The new constitution would return Tunisia to a presidential system much like the one it had under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the authoritarian ruler who was deposed during the country’s Arab Spring revolt in 2011.

Mr. Saied has said that the changes are needed to cleanse the country of corruption and end the paralysis of its political system.

Coming after a rushed drafting process that largely excluded the opposition, the structure and even the timing of the referendum heavily favored the new constitution, endorsed and partly written by Mr. Saied. Most major political parties urged supporters to boycott the vote, setting expectations for a low turnout. Results are expected on Tuesday.

Alone among the countries swept up in the Arab Spring, Tunisia established a democracy, if a fragile and often dysfunctional one. It successfully held three free and fair elections, wrote a well-regarded and inclusive constitution, founded independent institutions and safeguarded freedom of expression and of the press.

It failed, however, to expand economic opportunity or eliminate corruption.

The post-revolutionary era now appears to be over.

The 2014 Constitution, adopted three years after the fall of Mr. Ben Ali, split power between the president and Parliament in a bid to limit the authority of any president.

The new constitution preserves most of the 2014 Constitution’s clauses concerning rights and liberties, but it relegates Parliament to the status of a secondary branch, with the president alone empowered 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 case of “imminent danger” without time limits or oversight, and there is no provision for removing him.

If Mr. Saied is victorious, it will come as little surprise. His opponents pointed out that he controls the formerly independent elections authority as well as the committee that drafted the new constitution, and no minimum participation in the referendum was required for it to pass.

Those who campaigned against the proposal said the entire process was skewed in Mr. Saied’s favor. Several anti-referendum rallies were canceled by local officials on security grounds, government ministers appointed by Mr. Saied endorsed the draft and Mr. Saied himself twice urged the public to vote yes.

In the run-up to the vote, publicly funded television and radio stations devoted extensive airtime to covering proponents while excluding most opponents. Security forces responded to anti-Saied protests of several hundred people over the weekend with pepper spray, shoving and arrests.

The July referendum date excluded the votes of many well-educated Tunisians who were on their summer vacations.

“The people who are pushing the ‘yes,’ the whole administration and all the pro-Saied forces are deeply organized, and the other side that’s willing to say ‘no’ isn’t necessarily in town,” said Fadhel Abdelkefi, the president of Afek Tounes, one of the few political parties that decided to participate in the vote.

“When you have the president pushing people to vote and the whole town is covered in ads telling people to vote yes, it’s a really unfair situation,” he added.

The vote took place on the first anniversary of the day Mr. Saied fired his prime minister and suspended Parliament amid countrywide protests over the crumbling economy and the government’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic.

A year ago, cheering crowds flooded Tunis, the capital, hailing Mr. Saied as a savior and his power grab as a desperately needed cure for Tunisia’s corrupt, floundering political system.

By contrast, this July found most Tunisians dozy and detached, paying little heed to Mr. Saied’s appeals for their support on the ballot. Unrelenting heat kept them indoors; summer vacation kept them at the beach; urgent worries about high prices and low wages as the country’s economy slides further toward ruin kept some too preoccupied to vote. Political reform was thus not a major preoccupation, analysts said.

“We’re discussing here the fate of a nation, yet a lot of people have lost interest and faith in this entire process,” said Amine Ghali, the director of the Tunis-based Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center.

The run-up to the referendum had so stacked the odds in Mr. Saied’s favor that “this is rigging already,” Mr. Ghali said.

If turnout is thin, it would reflect a growing disenchantment with the president, if not outright opposition.

Mr. Saied had called on Tunisians to vote yes “to correct the course of the revolution,” as he had promised to do when seizing power last July. But many Tunisians who chanted for opportunity, dignity and freedom in the 2011 uprising saw less and less to match those ideals over the last year.

Wildly popular a year ago, Mr. Saied bled support as he prioritized political reforms over the failing economy, even as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent the prices of bread and other staple foods soaring and deepened hardship for many Tunisians.

Many political activists, civil society members, judges, lawyers and political parties at first supported Mr. Saied’s actions. But he lost their support after he began ruling by decree, arresting opponents, trying them in military court and putting his own appointees in charge of formerly independent government agencies, including the elections authority.

One survey commissioned by an international organization found that the percentage of respondents who held highly favorable views of him had dropped nearly 20 points from November to May. Conducted before the opposition began calling for a boycott, the same poll in May found that less than 30 percent of Tunisians strongly intended to participate in the referendum. That was down seven points from February, the last time that question was asked.

An early concrete sign that Tunisians were rebuffing Mr. Saied’s political proposals came in March, when less than 5 percent of Tunisians participated in an online survey on national priorities.

Undeterred, Mr. Saied soon appointed a committee of constitutional law experts to draft a new constitution. There was some early pushback from members who said their names had appeared on the committee roster despite not having agreed to join. Some former allies of Mr. Saied rejected the process over what they said was its lack of inclusivity.

But the panel produced a draft within a matter of weeks.

It made for a stark contrast to the 2014 Constitution, which an elected assembly debated for more than two years.

In late May, the Venice Commission, a Council of Europe advisory body composed of independent constitutional law experts, said the drafting of the constitution had been neither legitimate nor credible. Mr. Saied responded by castigating the group, then expelling its members from Tunisia.

After revising the proposed constitution, Mr. Saied emerged at the end of June with a version that gave the president even more powers than the previous version. Even the expert Mr. Saied had handpicked to write the original draft, Sadok Belaid, warned that the amended version would “pave the way for a disgraceful dictatorship.”

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

The lowest favorability rating among all Tunisian leaders in the poll went to the head of Ennahda, the Islamist political party that dominated Parliament before Mr. Saied dissolved it. The party is held in widespread contempt by many Tunisians, who blame it for a decade of government dysfunction.

That helps explain what meager support there was for the referendum, analysts said. Pro-Saied voices warned before the vote that if it failed, Ennahda would return to power and impose its conservative Islamic ideology on the country, invoking a bogeyman that has frightened many Tunisians since the days of dictatorship.

Even with a new constitution, however, the impasse over Mr. Saied’s reforms, his legitimacy and his failure so far to fix the economy means Tunisia is likely to remain mired in crisis, analysts said.

“This seems to be a vanity project for him, but what next?” said Gordon Gray, a Center for American Progress fellow who served as American ambassador to Tunisia from 2009 to 2012. “What is the social contract that Saied’s offering? Basically, it’s no rights and no economic growth, which isn’t the most attractive. So how do Tunisians react to that, is the question.”

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