Tunisian President Kais Saied vows 'zero tolerance' of referendum fraud

Those against a proposed constitution renew their call for a boycott of the July 25 vote

Opponents say President Kais Saied is seeking to reinstall an autocracy in the birthplace of the 2011 Arab uprisings. AP
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Tunisian President Kais Saied has said there will be “zero tolerance” for anyone who tries to derail a referendum on a controversial new constitution later this month.

Mr Saied said on Monday all parties should adhere to "neutrality" and must pay attention to "multiple attempts to infiltrate registration processes".

"There is no room for tolerance with those who want to thwart the referendum," he said during a meeting with Farouk Bouaskar, head of the Independent High Authority for Elections, at the Carthage Palace.

Mr Saied has warned of attempted electoral fraud in the coming vote, claiming the authorities have detected manipulation as voters register at polling centres before the referendum.

It comes after the Tunisian opposition renewed calls on Monday for a boycott of the July 25 referendum, despite the publication of an amended draft of the proposed constitution.

The draft constitution is the centrepiece of Mr Saied's programme to overhaul Tunisia's political system.

Rivals say the text confirms fears he is seeking to reinstall an autocracy in the birthplace of the 2011 Arab uprisings.

"We call on Tunisians to boycott this illegal, unconstitutional process that aims to legitimise a coup d'etat," veteran opposition figure Ahmed Nejib Chebbi told AFP.

Mr Chebbi said rights and freedoms would be threatened if the charter was approved.

"For me it's the quintessential bad constitution," he said.

Mr Chebbi's National Salvation Front includes five political parties, among them Mr Saied's nemesis the Ennahdha party, along with five civil society groups involving independent political figures.

It was formed in April, months after Mr Saied, a former law professor elected in 2019 amid public anger against the political class, sacked the government and suspended parliament, later seizing far-reaching legislative and judicial powers.

Mr Saied's initial power grab was welcomed by many Tunisians sick of the often-deadlocked post-revolution political system.

But critics have said his moves risk a return to autocracy, a decade after the 2011 overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in a popular revolt.

The process of writing the constitution has also come under fire.

The legal expert who oversaw the constitution's drafting has disavowed it, saying it was "completely different" from what his committee had submitted and warning that some articles could "pave the way for a dictatorial regime".

Last week, Mr Saied published an amended draft, apparently attempting to ward off criticism after the original was criticised for the nearly unlimited power it gave his office.

On Monday, Jawhar Ben Mbarek, leader of Citizens Against the Coup, urged Tunisians to "massively reject this referendum".

"We reject the entire process," he told AFP. "We are committed to the 2014 constitution, which we consider to be the only legal constitution, representative of the will of the Tunisian people."

The EU called Monday for an "inclusive national dialogue", saying it would be "a cornerstone of any credible constitutional process and long-term stability".

"It is essential to bring together the widest possible spectrum of political and societal actors in addressing the political, economic and social challenges the country is facing," said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell's office.

'A catastrophe in public finances'

The country's economy has been dealt a huge blow by Russia's war in Ukraine, according to a report in the Financial Times on Tuesday.

Increases in global food and energy prices sparked by the conflict pushed inflation up to a record 8.1 per cent in June, the report said, creating a heavier burden on people who were already living through an economic crisis.

Living standards in Tunisia have plummeted over the past decade since the 2011 uprisings.

Increasing costs for wheat and oil imports have put further strain on a government heavily in debt. The country subsidises bread and fuel for its 12 million people.

Fadhel Abdel Kefi, a former investment minister and leader of the opposition Afek Tunis party, told the Financial Times: “Since independence in 1956, we have not lived a catastrophe in public finances like the one we have been experiencing since 2020.

“The government owes money to milk producers, bakers and construction companies."

Updated: June 14, 2023, 7:21 AM