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Tunisia constitutional referendum marked by low turnout as opposition boycotts

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A new Tunisian constitution, whose opposition warns that the country’s democracy could be dismantled by greatly expanding presidential powers, will come into effect after a referendum on Monday that seemed easy to pass but had a low turnout.

President Kais Saied deposed parliament last year and started ruling by decree. He said the country needed to be saved from years of paralysis when he rewrote the democratic constitution introduced after Tunisia’s “Arab Spring” revolution in 2011.

Opposition parties boycotted the referendum, accusing Saied of a coup and saying the new constitution he published less than a month ago predicts a downturn towards autocracy.

The new constitution gives the president powers over both the government and the judiciary, while removing controls over his authority and weakening parliament.

Tunisia, meanwhile, faces a looming economic crisis and is seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — issues that have concerned ordinary people far more than the political crisis over the past year.

There was no minimum participation level for the measure to pass and the electoral commission estimated the provisional turnout at only 27.5%.

Shortly after an exit poll was published by Sigma Conseil indicating a ‘yes’ vote of 92.3%, hundreds of Saied supporters flocked to central Habib Bourguiba Avenue to celebrate.

“Sovereignty is for the people,” “The people want to purify the land,” they chanted, dismissing concerns about a return to autocracy.

“We are not afraid of anything. Only the corrupt and the officials who looted the state will be afraid,” said Noura bin Ayad, a 46-year-old woman holding a Tunisian flag.

Saied’s first moves against parliament last year seemed hugely popular with Tunisians, as thousands flooded the streets in support of him, furious with the political parties they blamed for years of misrule and decay.

But as Tunisia’s economy deteriorated over the past year with little intervention from Saied, its support seemed to wane.

“Now that we have given him a new political mandate to confront the political lobbies, we ask Saied to take care of our economic situation, prices and food supply,” said Naceur, one of his supporters who will be celebrating Monday.

Questioning Integrity

An opposition coalition, including Islamist Ennahda, the largest party in the dissolved parliament, said Saied had failed miserably to gain popular support for his coup and urged him to step down.

The low turnout does not compare well with previous elections because Tunisia now automatically registers voters. The previous lowest participation rate was 41% in 2019 for the parliament that Saied dissolved.

The president’s opponents have also questioned the integrity of a vote conducted by an electoral commission whose council has replaced Saied this year, and with fewer independent observers than in previous Tunisian elections.

Saied cast his own vote on Monday, praising the referendum as the foundation of a new republic.

Western democracies that saw Tunisia as the only Arab Spring success story have not yet commented on the proposed new constitution, though they have urged Tunis over the past year to return to the democratic path.

“I’m frustrated with all of them. I would rather enjoy this warm day than go to vote,” said Samia, a woman who sits with her husband and teenage son on the beach of La Marsa near Tunis, talking about Tunisian politicians.

Samir Slimane stood in front of a cafe in the capital and said he was not interested in voting.

“I have no hope for change. Kais Saied will not change anything. He just wants to have all the powers,” he said.

The economic downturn since 2011 has left many Tunisians angry with the parties that have ruled since the revolution and have become disillusioned with the political system they ran.

To address economic hardship, the government hopes to secure a $4 billion loan from the IMF, but faces fierce opposition from unions to required reforms, including cuts in fuel and food subsidies.


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