Tunisians begin voting in referendum on new constitution

New charter backed by President Kais Saied would greatly increase the power of the executive branch of government

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Voters in Tunisia went to the polls on Monday to decide on a new constitution championed by President Kais Saied that will increase the powers of the country's executive branch while reducing those of the legislature and judiciary.

The vote is being held one year to the day since Mr Saied sacked the government, closed Parliament and took the reins of power, citing “imminent danger” to the country.

The charter, drawn up by a small group of legal scholars last month and heavily revised by Mr Saied, has divided the nation. Many, including some of the men who composed the initial draft, say it puts too much power in the hands of the executive.

Others see it as an opportunity for Mr Saied, whom they see as a clean political actor, to sweep aside opposing forces and put the nation back on track.

Ahmed, 71, cast his ballot in favour of the referendum early at a school in the Tunis suburb of Aouina.

“I see myself in Saied,” he said. “The state needs a strong leader.”

Ahmed, 71, said he voted yes because "I see myself in Kais Saied," and he feels the state needs a strong leader. Erin Clare Brown / The National

Mr Saied cast his ballot at Ennaser Elementary School early in the morning, with a crew from Wataniya, the national broadcaster, covering the event.

He then gave a 20-minute speech inside the polling station about the draft constitution and the next steps in his political project, despite electoral rules that ban campaigning on the day of the vote.

“We are going to establish a new republic on the day of the declaration of the Tunisian Republic,” the president said. “A republic that is different than that of the last 10 years, and even before that.”

Mr Saied's proposed constitution would replace the charter adopted in 2014, three years after a popular uprising that toppled autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. That document was drafted by an elected constituent assembly over the course of two years and passed with a 93 per cent vote of support.

In downtown Tunis, Brahim, 69, said he voted in favour of the new constitution even though he had not read it.

“Whatever comes of this new constitution will be better than the confusion and fighting we had before,” he said.

Voters wait at a polling station in downtown Tunis to cast their ballots in the referenendum. Erin Clare Brown/ The National

Many of the country's political parties called for a boycott of the vote, hoping to deny the constitution legitimacy by keeping the turnout low. But with no minimum participation threshold, a boycott is unlikely to stop the charter from being passed.

Although Tunisia has historically had a voter turnout of about or above 50 per cent, experts said the referendum was unlikely to reach such levels of participation.

An electronic consultation conducted this spring, which Mr Saied said would be used to shape his road map and which many saw as a dress rehearsal for the referendum, attracted less than 7 per cent of eligible voters.

In the months since then, the country's election commission, newly rearranged by the president, undertook the task of automatically registering all eligible voters in the country, adding about 2 million voters to the roll.

Early turnout figures from overseas polling, which opened on Saturday, showed about 4.5 per cent of voters had cast their ballots.

The polls opened earlier than usual for election days, at 6am in most cities, and will close at 10pm.

Khamaies Sbai, who was overseeing a polling station in Tunis, said there had been a respectable turnout in the first two hours of voting. “People are coming to cast their ballots,” he said.

But some confusion about polling sites — the elections commission expanded the number of polling stations in recent weeks — made the work less smooth.

Malek, 33, said he was voting yes to get rid of political parties like the Islamist Ennahda party and the Free Destourian Party, which he sees as part of the old regime. Erin Clare Brown / The National

Hamadi Allala, an election official who has overseen polling stations in each election since 2011, said that this year the election commission "is suffering from financial struggles", due to the short turnaround time to plan and execute the referendum.

"In previous years, election budgets were discussed and passed by Parliament," he explained. "But as we have no Parliament, it's been a more appended process."

He noted that with the addition of 2 million voters to the rolls, the election commission also expanded the number of polling stations and extended the time the polls were open — putting stress on staff who were trained in short order to be able to participate. "We are doing this election with a minimum of tools," Mr Allala said.

If the constitution passes, it will cement much of the order Mr Saied has created over the past year. Most power will be concentrated in the executive branch, with the legislative and judiciary branches reduced to functions of the state.

It would also place the military and security forces under the power of the executive and would create a legislative body called a National Council of Regions and Districts.

Voters dip their left index finger in ink before casting their ballots at a polling site in downtown Tunis. Erin Clare Brown / The National

One of the more controversial, and, for many, confounding elements of the new constitution is an article that describes the state's role in enforcing Maqasid, a medieval Islamic legal doctrine that is often described as “the sacred purposes of Islam”.

After casting her ballot in Tunis, Monjia Ben Abid, 68, said: “I didn't cast a vote for the constitution, I cast a vote for Kais Saied”.

“We want a good life, we want our money to have value, our education and transport systems to work. We are lacking happiness — if life were what it was like before the revolution, people would be able to afford getting married and having families again.”

Not everyone was convinced.

At a polling station in the seaside village of Sidi Bou Said, Noor, 21 said she voted No because "we have been a democracy in Tunisia for 10 years and I want my country to remain a democracy".

"There are a lot of people who oppose Saied who are not voting, but if you boycott, what will you say to yourself in 10 years — 'I did nothing to try to stop us going back to a dictatorship'?"

Noor, 21, said she was voting No because "I want my country to stay a democracy". Erin Clare Brown / The National

At a cafe in downtown Tunis, Wael Naouar sipped a coffee with friends and explained why he was boycotting the referendum.

"If a No vote could make a difference, we would have voted no, but the entire election has been a masquerade and a farce from the beginning," he said. "The president controls the formerly independent election commission."

Instead, Mr Naouar and other proponents of the boycott took to the streets on Friday to protest against the referendum, where they faced violence from the police witnessed by journalists at The National.

"We raised our voices and were beaten for it," he said, lifting his shirt to reveal bruises where he was hit by police batons.

Updated: July 25, 2022, 2:40 PM