'A ship doesn't need a parliament': Tunisians prepare to vote on new constitution

Voters are divided on President Kais Saied's proposed charter but nearly all agree they want the economy to turn around

Campaigners set up for a 'No' vote rally in Akouda, on Tunisia's central coast. Erin Clare Brown / The National
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At an outdoor wedding hall made to look like an ancient fortress, Anas Soltani, a young political activist, climbed the dais on a recent evening and began addressing the crowd of about 200 below.

“I dreamt that after the revolution, Tunisia would be better,” he said. “But now there are people — one person in particular — trying to take us backwards.”

Mr Soltani, who is part of the liberal Afek Tounes party, was referring to the man for whom he had enthusiastically voted for president in 2019: Kais Saied.

“I trusted him. He was a professor; he was clean,” he said, describing how he supported Mr Saied even after he shut down Parliament and took sole control of the country last July. “But we now know that trust was misplaced.”

A year to the day after his consolidation of power, Mr Saied is asking Tunisians to go to the polls on Monday to ratify a new constitution that has divided the nation over how, or even whether to vote.

The new charter, which was written by a small committee of five legal scholars and then extensively revised by the president himself, would grant Mr Saied sweeping new powers, eliminate checks on the executive, reduce the powers of the Parliament and judiciary, and restructure the government.

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Mr Saied and his supporters say these changes are necessary to eliminate corruption and “return the nation to the revolutionary path”.

Critics, including nearly all of the country’s political parties, scores of civil society organisations and even several of the scholars who helped write the original draft warn the document is “dangerous” and could lead the country farther from democracy.

Yet those who reject the constitution are at odds over what to do come Monday — vote No, as Mr Soltani and his party are encouraging, or boycott the referendum altogether.

Little campaigning has taken place on either side of the vote. Here, designated slots for campaign posters in Sousse remained empty with less than a week until the vote. Erin Clare Brown / The National

Boycotter's peril

"It will only get harder to oppose Kais Saied after July 25, which is why we're encouraging a No vote," said Kamel Abederrazak, regional director for Afek Tounes in Sousse.

Afek stands alone in its No campaign, as nearly all of Tunisia’s remaining political parties across the ideological spectrum have opted to boycott. The move has puzzled many Tunisia observers, as there is no minimum threshold for participation for the constitution to pass.

But Monica Marks, a professor at NYU Abu Dhabi and longtime scholar on Tunisia, explained that "boycotters understand their position to be both principled and pragmatic", a refusal to legitimise what they say is in an illegal process and a way to strip legitimacy from the referendum by depressing turnout and denying the president the mandate he desires.

"Referenda for constitutions tend to require a high minimum threshold of turnout, at least 30 per cent in most contexts," said Ms Marks. "In this election, there is no minimum threshold, but Saied will nevertheless want high turnout to legitimise this exercise."

Ghazi Chaouachi, secretary general of the Democratic Current party, explained his party was calling for a boycott because "we believe that the entire process that the president wants to impose is unconstitutional and lacks legitimacy".

"If this referendum succeeds and Kais Saied’s project passes, it would be a fatal blow to the entire democratic process in the country and will result in establishing autocratic rule,” he said.

'For Tunisia to get better, we need a strong leader,' said Yes voter Selim, a farmer in Bouficha. Erin Clare Brown / The National

The argument that depressing turnout will delegitimise the referendum is a perilous one.

A digital consultation held this year that was designed to inform Mr Saied's road map saw fewer than 7 per cent of eligible voters participate. Mr Saied still declared it a success and took the responses as a mandate to proceed with rewriting the constitution, even though only 36 per cent of the roughly 600,000 Tunisians who participated said they favoured a new charter.

Fathi, an Arabic teacher who works in the governorate of Sousse, said he planned to boycott because "Kais Saied has had control of the country for a whole year, and nothing has changed".

"He always says he'll fix corruption but never does. Now he wants to reduce the state to himself, but Tunisia is bigger than Kais Saied," the teacher said.

While some are boycotting on the cue of the country's political parties, others are boycotting what they say is both the president and the political structure that led to his power grab.

At a protest in central Tunis on Wednesday, Imen be Jouira, who works for a local NGO said: "We want a constitution that guarantees all the rights and liberties we have fought for since 2011 and even before. We want something new. We don't want to go back to what we were. And we don't want something as risky as the constitution" proposed by Mr Saied.

Election observers collect and inspect literature at a Yes campaign event in Tunis. Erin Clare Brown / The National

Many Tunisians plan to stay away from the polls on Monday, though some say it is more out of exhaustion than principle. In the rural coastal town of Bouficha, Zohra said she did not intend to vote. "We voted before and nothing good came from it."

She said she was more concerned with the nearly 9 per cent inflation gripping the country that is making staying afloat harder for her, her family and her neighbours. "We look at the fruit and meat in the market and just walk by — we can't afford to buy them," she said.

Yes, and ...

While the country's political parties rally against the referendum, many Tunisians say they still trust the president to deliver for them, and intend to vote yes in the referendum.

Publicised polling has been disallowed since mid-May, however, some officials with access to private, unpublicised surveys suggest that numbers indicate roughly 55 per cent of Tunisians said they would vote yes to the new constitution, while only 17 per cent said they would vote no.

Touhemi, a retiree in Boufichia, said, "Kais Saied reminds me of [Habib] Bourguiba", Tunisia's independence leader who made himself president for life in the 1960s, "and that makes me trust him".

Touhemi, 70, said he was supporting Kais Saied because he reminded him of the independence leader Habib Bourguiba. Erin Clare Brown / The National

Many said they were looking for a strong leader to dig the country out of the economic quagmire.

"A ship doesn't need a parliament, a ship needs a captain to sail," said Khayreddine, a farmer who works in the coastal region around Sousse. He said he was sure Mr Saied could turn the economy around and "make our lives better, like they were under [Zine El Abedine] Ben Ali", the autocratic ruler who was ousted in the 2011 revolution.

Mr Saied's government recently released a proposed slate of austerity measures, including cutting food subsidies and reducing the public wage bill, in a bid to secure a nearly $4 billion loan from the IMF. The country's powerful labour union has rejected the plan, saying it would put more pressure on everyday Tunisians and exacerbate the cost-of-living crisis.

In the Tunisian suburb of Sidi Bou Said, Ousema said he had not seen the kind of economic gains he had hoped for after the revolution, and was willing to back Mr Saied's new constitution in the hope it would clear the way for him to make a more lucid economic plan.

"Freedom of expression alone isn't much use, you need freedom of the economy to survive," he said.

Updated: July 24, 2022, 8:59 PM