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Tunisia votes on constitution seen as a threat to democracy

#Tunisia #votes #constitution #threat #democracy

Tunisians are set to vote Monday on a constitution that would give President Kais Saied almost uncontrolled powers, a key moment in his plan to overhaul the political system in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

The referendum comes exactly a year to the day after Saied’s ouster from government and the suspension of parliament – a decisive blow to the country’s often chaotic fledgling democracy.

Opponents have called for a boycott, but while observers have predicted most Tunisians will oppose the election, few doubt the charter will be passed.

“The biggest unknown in this referendum is turnout and whether it will be low or very low,” said analyst Youssef Cherif.

Those who vote yes “will do so either because they like the president or because they hate those who have governed Tunisia,” he added.

The text aims to replace the mixed presidential-parliamentary system enshrined in a 2014 constitution that hailed Tunisia as the only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab uprisings.

The leader of Saied’s ‘new republic’ would have ultimate executive power and would appoint a government without requiring a vote of confidence in Parliament.

The President would also direct the armed forces and appoint judges who would be banned from striking.

Saied’s rivals, including the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party, which has dominated Tunisian politics since 2011, accuse him of pulling the country back into autocracy.

The process leading up to the referendum was also widely criticized.

“People don’t know what they’re voting on or why,” Cherif said.

– “The net is tightening” –

Political analyst Hamadi Redissi said that unlike in 2014, there had been little debate among all stakeholders over the text, which was “hastily written in just a few weeks”.

Saied, who has ruled by decree since last year and has gained control of the judiciary and the electoral board, held an online public consultation ostensibly to guide a committee he had appointed in drafting a new constitution.

But Sadeq Belaid, the legal expert leading that process, rejected Saied’s draft, saying it was “completely different” from what his committee had put forward and warning he could install “a dictatorial regime”.

Saied released a slightly amended document just over two weeks before the vote, but even under the new draft it would be virtually impossible to force the president out of office.

Tunisia “is moving towards a dictatorship in the Latin sense, where the president dictates everything,” Redissi said.

The country would not become like China or Egypt but might end up resembling Turkey or Russia, he added.

Isabelle Werenfels, a researcher at the German think tank SWP, warned Tunisia against a “closed system”.

“If you look at the progressive dismantling of institutions that monitor freedom, democracy and new rules, it looks like the nets are tightening,” she said.

– economic problems –

The campaign by registrants to publicly express a position on the Constitution has been lukewarm.

Only seven organizations or individuals are registered for the ‘No’ campaign, compared to 144 for ‘Yes’.

Billboards featuring the Tunisian flag, banned under the government’s own rules, have appeared in Tunis, bearing a phrase from an open letter published by Saied demanding a ‘yes’ ‘lest the state falter and with it the goals of the revolution will be achieved”.

While the recent election saw low turnout, Saied himself, a former legal scholar who is considered incorruptible and removed from the widely distrusted political elite, was elected in 2019 with a turnout of 58 percent.

Today, Tunisians are grappling with grueling economic problems, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, and “very few people care about politics,” Cherif said.

Saied urgently needs to find solutions to an economy plagued by high inflation, youth unemployment of up to 40 percent and a third of the population living in poverty.

The heavily indebted country is negotiating a bailout with the International Monetary Fund, but experts warn the liberalization reforms the lender is likely to demand in return could spark social unrest.

Meanwhile, fears are growing for Tunisia’s much-vaunted, if flawed, democracy.

Freedom House and The Economist have already downgraded Tunisia from free to partially free, Cherif noted.

“The fact that people can freely express themselves or vote ‘no’ without going to jail shows that we are not in a traditional dictatorship,” he said.

But, he added, “this constitution could create an authoritarian regime similar to the regimes Tunisia experienced before 2011.”

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#Tunisia #votes #constitution #threat #democracy

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