Supporters of Tunisian President Kais Saied on Tuesday celebrated the likelihood of a vote in favour of a new constitution that strengthens the powers of the head of state and risks the return of authoritarian rule in the birthplace of the 2011 Arab uprisings.
The referendum, held a year to the day after Mr Saied sacked the government and suspended parliament in what rivals called a coup, drew at least 27.5 per cent of Tunisia's 9.3 million registered voters to the ballot boxes, Tunisia's ISIE electoral commission said on Monday after polls closed.
It said 92 to 93 per cent of those who voted supported the new constitution, according to an exit poll taken by the Sigma Conseil institute. Initial results are scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
After the projected outcome was announced on national television, supporters of Mr Saied drove cars in procession through central Tunis, waving flags and sounding their horns, with some singing the national anthem or shouting “We would sacrifice our souls and our blood for you, Saied!”
At around 0100 GMT, the president appeared in front of a jubilant crowd.
“Tunisia has entered a new phase,” he said, according to local television, adding that “there was a large crowd in the polling stations and the rate would have been higher if the vote took place over two days”.
Monday's turnout at the polls was seen as a gauge of Mr Saied's popularity after a year of increasingly tight one-man rule and scant progress in tackling Tunisia's economic woes.
The legislative elections in 2019 attracted a 32 per cent turnout.
Without naming them, the president promised “all those who have committed crimes against the country will be held accountable for their actions”.
Many voters were from the “middle classes most affected” by years of economic crisis, Sigma head Hassen Zargouni said.
Mr Saied's move against a system that emerged after the 2011 overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was welcomed by many Tunisians fed up with high inflation and unemployment, political turmoil and a system they felt had brought little improvement to their lives.
Turnout on referendum day was higher than many observers had expected, showing that Mr Saied continues to enjoy some personal popularity almost three years into his mandate.
“Tunisia will prosper from today onwards,” Imed Hezzi, a 57-year-old waiter, said after voting. “The start of the new Tunisia is today.”
Mr Saied's critics have warned the new constitution would lock in presidential powers that could tip Tunisia back into dictatorship. Many boycotted the vote.
The new text would place the president in command of the army, allow him to appoint a government without parliamentary approval and make him nearly impossible to remove from office.
He could also present draft laws to Parliament, which would be obliged to give them priority.
The new charter “gives the president almost all powers and dismantles any check on his rule and any institution that might exert any kind of control over him,” said Said Benarbia, regional director of the International Commission of Jurists.
“None of the safeguards that could protect Tunisians from Ben Ali-type violations are there anymore.”
The text “doesn't even envisage the possibility of a no vote”, he said.
The charter would replace a 2014 constitution that was a hard-won compromise between Islamist-leaning and secular forces.
Mr Saied's supporters blame the resulting parliamentary-presidential system and dominant Islamist-influenced Ennahdha party for years of crises and corruption.
The draft constitution was published this month with little reference to an earlier text produced by a committee Mr Saied had appointed.
Sadeq Belaid, a mentor of Mr Saied who led the process, said that the first draft risked creating a dictatorship.
Slight amendments did little to address such concerns.
Opposition parties and civil society groups had urged a boycott of the referendum, but the powerful UGTT trade union declined to take a position.
Mr Saied, a 64-year-old law professor, won the 2019 presidential election in a landslide, building on his image as an incorruptible political outsider.
He has appeared increasingly isolated of late, mostly limiting his public comments to recorded videos — often diatribes against domestic foes branded “snakes”, “germs” and “traitors”.
But he has vowed to protect freedoms and describes his political project as a return to the path of the revolution.
“The country's run into a brick wall. But today we turn a new page,” Labourer Ridha Nefzi, 43 said.
But Mr Saied's popularity is tempered by soaring inflation, youth unemployment of 40 per cent and the potentially tough conditions attached to an imminent bailout by the International Monetary Fund.