TUNIS: Tunisia has approved a new constitution granting unchecked powers to the office of President Kais Saied, the electoral commission has announced, after a short-lived referendum in which voters overwhelmingly backed the document.
Saied’s rivals have accused the Saied-controlled electoral council of “fraud” and said its referendum, held on Monday, failed.
On Tuesday evening, the head of the electoral commission, Farouk Bouasker, told reporters that the body “announces the acceptance of the new draft constitution of the Tunisian Republic”, on the basis of the preliminary results, with 94.6% of the valid ballots voting “yes”, on a participation rate of 30.5%.
Monday’s vote came a year to the day after the president sacked the government and suspended parliament, dealing a dramatic blow to the only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
For some Tunisians, his moves raised fears of a return to autocracy, but they were welcomed by others, weary of high inflation and unemployment, political corruption and a system that they say , brought little improvement.
There was little doubt that the ‘yes’ campaign would prevail, a prediction reflected in an exit poll by independent polling group Sigma Consulting.
Most of Saied’s rivals called for a boycott, and although turnout was low, it was higher than many expected.
“Tunisia has entered a new phase,” Saied told supporters after the polls closed.
“What the Tunisian people have done (…) is a lesson for the world, and a lesson for history on a scale on which the lessons of history are measured,” he said.
But the US State Department said on Tuesday it had noted “concerns that the new constitution includes weakened checks and balances that could compromise the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
And the Tunisian National Salvation Front opposition alliance accused the electoral council of falsifying turnout figures.
NSF chief Ahmed Nejib Chebbi said the numbers were “inflated and do not match what observers have seen on the ground”.
The electoral council “is not honest and impartial, and its figures are fraudulent”, he said.
Saied, a 64-year-old law professor, dissolved parliament and took control of the judiciary and the electoral commission on July 25 last year.
Its opponents say the measures were aimed at installing an autocracy more than a decade after the fall of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but its supporters say they were necessary after years of corruption and political unrest.
“After 10 years of disappointment and total failure in the management of the state and the economy, the Tunisian people wanted to get rid of the old and take a new step, whatever the results”, declared Noureddine Al-Rezgui, usher.
A state television poll of ‘yes’ voters suggested that ‘reforming the country and improving the situation’ as well as ‘support for Kais Saied/his project’ were their main motivations.
Thirteen percent said they were “convinced by the new constitution.”
Rights groups have warned that the bill grants sweeping unchecked powers to the presidency, allows Saied to appoint a government without parliamentary approval and makes it virtually impossible to remove him from office.
Said Benarbia, regional director of the International Commission of Jurists, told AFP that the new constitution “would give the president almost full power and dismantle all checks on his power”.
“The process was opaque and illegal, the result is illegitimate,” he added.
Saied has repeatedly threatened his enemies in recent months, posting video rants against unnamed enemies he describes as “germs”, “snakes” and “traitors”.
On Monday, he promised to hold “all those who have committed crimes against the country” to account.
Analyst Abdellatif Hannachi said the results meant Saied “can now do whatever he wants without considering anyone else”.
“The question now is: what is the future of opposition parties and organizations? »
As well as reshaping the political system, Monday’s vote was seen as an indicator of Saied’s personal popularity, nearly three years after the political outsider won Tunisia’s first direct democratic presidential election by a landslide.
The country is now set to hold elections for the castrated parliament in December.
Until then, “Kais Saied will have more power than a pharaoh, a medieval caliph or the (Ottoman-era) bey of Tunis,” said political scientist Hamadi Redissi.
Turnout in elections has gradually declined since the 2011 revolution, dropping from just over half in a parliamentary poll a few months after Ben Ali’s ousting to 32% in 2019.