Briefing

Tunisia's big backslide

The nation appears on the brink of erasing the democratic gains it's made since the Arab Spring

Tunisian President Kais Saied notched a huge win last week after the public voted to approve a controversial new Constitution cementing his one-man rule over the country's backsliding democracy. But the turnout for the referendum was low — reportedly only 30.5 percent of eligible voters took part — and the opposition isn't exactly happy with the results. Here's everything you need to know:

A referendum? One-man rule? Tell me more.

President Kais Saied first began consolidating power last July, when he fired the country's prime minister and suspended its parliament in response to economic protests and the government's failed response to COVID-19, BBC News and the Times report. At the time, Tunisians praised the "constitutional coup" — they hoped Saied, a popular outsider who initially won office in 2019, might fix the country's badly-broken political establishment. But the president thereafter dissolved Tunisia's 2014 Constitution and began ruling by decree, worrying and angering some of the activists and political parties that had supported him.

In May of 2022, Saied then tasked his National Consultative Commission for a New Republic with drafting a new constitution, with a vote set for July 25. A draft of the document, released June 30, immediately concerned activists and rights groups, who worried it limited "the influence of parliament and essentially [signed off] on one-man rule," CNN writes. Some of the Constitution's articles, for example, would make it harder for parliament to pass a no-confidence vote, and would also afford the president the power to, at any time, dismiss the government or its members. Others gave Saied the authority to take "exceptional measures" for reasons of national security. An amended draft was later released on July 8, but it included only minor changes, critics claimed.

When it came time to vote on the new document, which the Times notes was drafted largely without consulting the opposition, "[m]ost major political parties urged supporters to boycott the vote, setting expectations for a low turnout." Ultimately, just 30.5 percent of eligible voters participated, though 95 percent of them voted "yes," according to the electoral commission. In the end, the new Constitution was approved.

"The masses that came out today across the country show the significance of this moment," Saied said in an address after polls closed. "Today marks a new chapter of hope and turning the page on poverty, despair, and injustice."

Was the referendum's passage expected?

It seems it was. For one thing, Saied himself appointed the board of both the elections authority and the committee that drafted the updated Constitution. There was also no minimum voter participation required for the referendum to pass, the Times writes.

But additionally, opponents had criticized the process as having been inclined toward approval from the start, "with government ministers calling for Tunisians to support the new Constitution and state-funded media largely featuring pro-Saied voices," the Times continues. Leading up to the vote, for example, "publicly funded television and radio stations devoted extensive airtime to covering proponents while excluding most opponents," and anti-Saied protests were interrupted by security forces that shoved and arrested demonstrators. 

And on top of that, many well-educated Tunisians, who may have ultimately chosen to vote against the referendum, were out of town on July 25, traveling 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," Fadhel Abdelkefi, president of the political party Afek Tounes, told the Times. "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."

Who is this Saied, anyway?

Ironically a former constitutional law professor (as well as a political outsider), Saied was first chosen to lead Tunisia back in 2019. He has said he ultimately decided to run for office not because he wanted to, but because he was being called to do so.

"I am running against my own will," Saied told an interviewer during his presidential campaign, per a 2021 Times profile. "God says, 'Warfare is obligatory for you, though it is hateful to you.' Responsibility is a hateful thing. It is like a soldier standing on the front. He does not want to kill, but has been ordained to battle."

As for his platform, Saied has said he is driven by Tunisia's youth and its poor, for whom he wants to guarantee a better life and a government without corruption. Though his social views are lamented by some (he's criticized open homosexuality, supports the death penalty, and "opposes equal inheritance for men and women," for example, the Times writes), almost all can agree he is firm, steady, and generally somewhat popular, even after his sweeping power grab last year.

Okay, well … now what?

Analysts say the new Constitution could deal the fledgling democracy its "final blow," essentially erasing the "social and political gains" it has seen since the Arab Spring in 2011, CNN reports. Whichever path the country turns down, it could be hard for it to find its way back.

Not everyone's concerned, however. "A boat needs one captain," Rafaa Baouindi, who voted in support of the referendum, told the Times. "Personally, I need one captain."

"He's a good person. I have faith in him," added a woman named Saida, speaking with BBC News.

As far as upcoming policy initiatives and fixes go, advancing the referendum might make it easier for Saied to secure an economy-stabilizing rescue package from the International Monetary Fund, considering "there is no need to negotiate within a ruling coalition, and the referendum brings an end to the temporary arrangements in place since last summer," Reuters writes. That said, Western democracies, who have donated plenty to Tunisia over the past decade, might be feeling a bit reluctant to support the country in the wake of the controversial vote. Nations fearing the impact of a Tunisian migration crisis brought about by economic collapse, however, might react a bit more sympathetically to Saied's case.

What's the United States' take?

State Department Spokesperson Ned Price released a statement on Tuesday, acknowledging that the referendum was "marked by low turnout," with a "broad range of Tunisia's civil society, media, and political parties" having "expressed deep concerns."

"In particular," he said, "we note the widespread concerns among many Tunisians regarding the lack of an inclusive and transparent process and limited scope for genuine public debate during the drafting of the new constitution."

Price went on to emphasize "the importance of respect for the separation of powers," especially ahead of legislative elections slated for the end of the year. 

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