On July 25th, 2022, the Tunisian president opened a referendum on a new constitution. Though opposition groups boycotted the vote, Tunisia’s constitutional referendum passed and the draft received enough support to pass into law. This new constitution gives the Tunisian president enough power to plunge the country back into a dictatorship, which represents an increased poverty risk for the country’s lower classes.
Causes and Critiques
The Arab Spring began in Tunisia and the country is often hailed as the only success to emerge from the uprisings. In 2019, Kais Saied won the presidential election. In 2021, he implemented reforms to shift power from the parliament to the executive, effectively moving Tunisia from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential one.
This year, Saied proposed increasing his powers through Tunisia’s constitutional referendum to reduce the government’s inefficiency and political instability and improve the economic situation.
According to ISIE, the Tunisian agency responsible for the election and referendum monitoring, 95% of voters approved the constitution. Thousands of Tunisians took to the streets to show their support following the result. However, opposition groups and international critics question the results and the reasons behind Tunisia’s constitutional referendum.
First, only 30.5% of registered voters participated in the referendum, as opposition groups boycotted it, according to Reuters. Tunisia’s constitution referendum in 2022 had one of the lowest turnout rates in recent history. Second, critics question the ISIE’s credibility. In April this year, Saied appointed three of its seven members, effectively seizing control over the institution.
Third, Tunisia’s constitutional referendum jeopardizes democratic values previously enshrined by the 2014 constitution. Though Saied denies undoing the freedoms, the reforms give the president powers associated with autocracies:
- Total command over the military.
- Power to appoint a new government without waiting for the parliament’s approval.
- Power to appoint new judges uncontested.
- Power to present draft laws to parliament, which would be prioritized over other drafts on the agenda.
- It is now almost impossible to remove the president from office before the end of the term.
This third issue led to the opposition groups’ boycott and provoked an international response.
The Council of the European Union issued a press release two days after Tunisia’s constitutional referendum highlighting that the December parliamentary elections would be vital for the country to “return to the normal functioning of the country’s institutions, with full respect for democratic principles” and reinstated that the EU would be willing to assist with democratization.
Now that the executive body usurped parliament its official power, it remains to be seen whether the president will continue giving it enough weight for the parliamentary elections to bring a significant change.
The United States further critiqued the new constitution’s lack of transparency and the government’s failure to include the general public during the drafting process.
Polls show that Saied would be the most likely candidate to be re-elected, according to Al Jazeera. Opposition parties failed to organize an effective campaign to shift public opinion against him or change the political agenda.
Many Tunisians support Saied because of the country’s economic inefficiency during the democratic years. The financial situation worsened – inflation, increasing unemployment rates, higher foreign debt and currency depreciation continue to plague Tunisia – and political instability also resulted in violence. Overall, Tunisians saw no tangible benefits from democracy and 77% of the population reported valuing the government’s efficiency over its form.
Saied, a populist, promises to lead the nation out of the economic turmoil now that he has unfiltered control. His most vital support comes from the lower classes of society.
The 2016-2020 National Development Plan failed to reduce regional inequalities and poverty. Instead, the poverty rate increased from 14% to 21% from 2020 to 2021 and unemployment increased by 2.8%. These increases led to protests, which slowed down the economy and snowballed into anti-government nationwide protests on July 25th, 2021. These protests culminated in Saied’s decision to dilute parliamentary power.
Since then, the president has done little to address the food insecurity and high inflation that impacts his strongest supporters, focusing instead on increasing executive powers and imprisoning opposition leaders, according to the Atlantic Council.
According to Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Tunisia needs regional development strategies with a specific focus on rural areas for constituents to see a substantial change in their quality of life, especially in disadvantaged communities. These reforms require efficient, decentralized institutions that can work with regional authorities.
Tunisia’s constitutional referendum gives the president enough powers to risk plunging the state back into autocracy. This total control may be helpful if Saied acts on his promises to work on the economy and pass economic reforms. Still, by eliminating opposition parties, Saied also eliminated any possibility for others to pass reforms reducing poverty were he not to make poverty reduction a priority.
The constitution marks a move towards secularism, which may keep the country on a democratic path. Still, it remains to be seen whether Tunisia will continue respecting democratic ideals despite its new constitution.
– Elena Sofia Massacesi