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Disillusioned Tunisians head to polls for president’s referendum

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Tunisians will go to the polls Monday in a constitutional referendum expected to create a presidential regime that will concentrate power in the hands of head of state Kais Saied. While many international observers see the vote as just a power grab, many people at a polling station in the capital Tunis said they want to turn the page on a decade of political and economic instability as the Arab Spring soured.

A few voters quickly cast their votes and set off as police officers watch them in the courtyard of the Mongi Slim school in the Cité Olympique district of Tunis. Thanks to the low turnout at this polling station, it only takes ten minutes for people to vote on the proposed new constitution.

There was a stark contrast to the atmosphere in this polling station at the same time and place when Tunisians voted in the country’s first free and fair parliamentary elections in October 2014. Eight years ago, there was tremendous enthusiasm; some voters showed up draped in the Tunisian flag. This time a sense of bitterness, even anger, was all too palpable. Every voter interviewed here said they support President Saied’s proposed new constitution in hopes of turning their backs on the instability that plagued the country after the Arab Spring began in Tunisia and hastened the 2011 revolution.

Adel Ouennich shows the ink stain on his finger that he voted.
Adel Ouennich shows the ink stain on his finger that he voted. © Mehdi Chebil, France 24

“This vote is very special because it is going to get the Islamists out of the way! That’s why we’re coming to the polls today,” Adel Ouennich said, referring to the prominent role the Islamist Ennahda party has played in post-revolutionary governments. “I’m all for having an all-powerful president who will give the country strong leadership,” the 56-year-old engineer continued. “It’s a lot better than weak governments where everyone is shifting responsibility.”

In fact, Saied has had colossal presidential powers since what many considered his coup in July 2021. Saied had been in power since October 2019, but decided to dissolve parliament and many of the checks and balances imposed by the 2014 constitution. Independent actors such as the judiciary and the media have been effectively brought under his thumb.

Polling stations are open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., a typically long period of time intended to encourage people to get out and vote.
Polling stations are open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., a typically long period of time intended to encourage people to get out and vote. © Mehdi Chebil, France 24

This referendum aims to codify these legislative changes and enshrine a system that gives Saied massive powers without being accountable.

But the disillusionment among many Tunisians is so great that they see these concerns as purely procedural issues. “This new constitution isn’t great, but we can improve it along the way,” said Sarah Boughriba, who came to vote with her parents and son. “We are not afraid of a bit of a dictatorship cleaning up the country,” said the 28-year-old, who argued that a lasting authoritarian regime is not possible in Tunisia after the Arab Spring. “We got rid of a dictator once so we could do it again.”

Sarah Boughriba (center, holding her son) has come to vote with her parents.
Sarah Boughriba (center, holding her son) has come to vote with her parents. © Mehdi Chebil, France 24

Unsurprisingly, voters are unanimous in favor of Saied’s new constitution. The majority of the opposition is boycotting the polls because they don’t want to legitimize democratic setbacks. The turnout is therefore the major problem with this referendum. A high abstinence rate would allow Saied to claim that the people are “still on his side”. A low abstention rate would weaken its populist rhetoric and the opposition could argue that the majority of Tunisians reject the new regime.

But it was remarkable how many bread-and-butter issues dominated the discussion of the issues at stake in this referendum.

Mongi Slim Elementary School Election Staff are waiting for the next voter.
Mongi Slim Elementary School Election Staff are waiting for the next voter. © Mehdi Chebil, France 24

“I’ve lived in France for five years,” Boughriba said. “I’m homesick, but it hurts me to see how things are going here. Among my friends, all university graduates are emigrating. We are fed up; it cannot go on like this.”

A few miles away, in the working-class neighborhood of Ettadhamen, a small but steady stream of voters poured into a primary school that had been converted into a polling station for the day. The school is in a worse condition than the one in central Tunis. Here, too, a sense of bitterness prevails.

Habib Guerbouj (center) and his friends play cards in a cafe in Tunis' working-class Ettadhamen district after voting in favor of proposed constitutional reforms.
Habib Guerbouj (center) and his friends play cards in a cafe in Tunis’ working-class Ettadhamen district after voting in favor of proposed constitutional reforms. © Mehdi Chebil, France 24

“After the fall of dictator Ben Ali, we thought that with democracy we would have the kind of life that people have in Europe. Our situation has actually become even more difficult. We still earn the same wages, but everything has become more expensive and the cost of credit has also increased. We really need to tighten our belts for the last ten days of the month or we’d run out of money,” said Mohsen Bechedly, a high school physical education teacher.

“We Tunisians want a simple life,” the 51-year-old continued. “We’re not talking about vacations in the Caribbean – we just want to be able to feed and dress our children properly. That is why we are looking for someone who can take us out of the past ten years.”

Gym teacher Mohsen Bechedly (right), shakes hands with a polling officer after casting his vote.
Gym teacher Mohsen Bechedly (right), shakes hands with a polling officer after casting his vote. © Mehdi Chebil, France 24

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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