GP Short Notes # 651, 31 July 2022
Tunisia: Referendum paves the way for one-man rule
On 25 July, Tunisians voted on the referendum on President Kais Saied’s proposed constitution. After the voting, Saied said: “Our money and our wealth are enormous, and our will is even greater, to rebuild a new Tunisia and a new republic, one that breaks with the past.” The date also marked one year of Saied’s suspension of the parliament and dismissal of the government in 2021. On the same day, the spokesperson of the largest opposition party, Ennahda said: “Ennahda calls for boycotting the constitutional referendum and considers it illegitimate, illegal and issued by a coup authority.”
On 26 July, Reuters reported the exit poll results of the referendum, wherein it was revealed that 92.3 per cent voted “YES” to approve the proposed constitution. However, the voter turnout remained low, and only 27.5 per cent of all registered voters voted. The referendum was boycotted by the opposition and its supporters.
What is the Background?
First, the new constitution. Earlier in 2022, Saied published a draft of the new constitution. The draft holds that the government would be answerable to the president, not the parliament. However, with a two-thirds majority, the parliament can withdraw support to the government. The draft also maintains that the president would have the power to present draft laws, be the sole power to propose treaties, draft state budgets, and appoint or dismiss ministers and judges. The president can extend his two-term tenure if he deems any situation an unavoidable threat to Tunisia.
Second, the gradual power grab. Prior to the referendum, Saied took several measures to consolidate his power. These included the suspension of the parliament, a rule by decree, establishment of a new supreme judicial council, and replacement of the cabinet and several election commission officials. The above ensured Saied had control over all institutions in Tunisia.
Third, criticism against Saied. The referendum was preceded by weeks of protests by opposition coalitions arguing that Saied was undoing the democratic progress in Tunisia. The protesters also raised concerns over the economic crisis, including unemployment, poverty, and inadequate salaries. Opposition parties and trade unions challenged the Saied administration’s decision to approach the IMF for a bailout. The bailout conditions included a need to contain its civil service wage bill and replace generalized subsidies with direct transfers to the poor to tackle fiscal imbalance.
What does it mean?
First, with the new constitution, Saied has awarded himself control over the three pillars of democracy - the executive, judiciary and legislature. In Africa, Saied is not the first strongman leader to grab power through democratic means and military coups. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, South Africa’s former president Robert Mugabe or Sudan’s former military ruler Omar al Bashir are examples of the same.
Second, Saied has to address the economic issues to win the people’s support. Though there is opposition to the proposed IMF reforms, Saied’s heavy-handed governance is likely to disregard the same and move ahead with the talks
Third, the protests against Tunisia’s long-time dictator Ben Ali in late 2010 led to his fall in 2011, sparking a series of anti-regime protests across the Middle East and North Africa; only Tunisia managed to successfully establish a democratic transition in this Arab Spring. With the return of a strongman in Tunisia, the hope for democracy in the MENA is wavering.