Does Tunisia's new constitution offer the turning point the country needs?

Tunisia is badly in need of a reset, even if how it gets there leaves much to be desired

An elderly Tunisian man arrives with his wife to vote in a referendum on a draft constitution put forward by President Kais Saied, on July 25, 2022. AFP
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A constitution lays out the guiding principles for any country. Its text is meant to stand the test of time. Yesterday, Tunisians went to the polls to cast their vote on a new constitution as the country continues to forge its way in a new political reality a decade after the end of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's reign.

Turnout was expected to be low, given the summer heat and the fact that most of the country’s political parties urged their supporters to boycott the vote. But the constitution, proposed by the country’s President, Kais Saied, is nonetheless expected to pass. Those voting in favour of it hope that it spurs sorely needed change in a country that for too long has been in the throes of political and economic crises.

The country’s previous constitution, passed in 2014, stood out for being the first in its history to be drafted by a diverse array of groups with competing political interests and priorities. Its passage with 200 votes in favour in the country’s 217-member Constituent Assembly was a victory for cross-party compromise.

But the rivalries, divisions, turmoil and corruption that have dogged Tunisian governments in the years since have shown the pitfalls of a founding document that, to a great extent, served to paper over the deep divisions between parties. Tunisia’s economy has been trapped in a persistent downward spiral – inflation is rampant; public debt is out of control; and youth unemployment is critically high. For most, the sheen that party politics took on after the popular uprising of 2011 has worn off.

If Tunisian parties' differences are reconcilable, nearly a decade under the current system has failed to show it

This explains the widespread popularity of Mr Saied, who came to power on an anti-corruption platform in 2019. A year ago, after Mr Saied sacked the government and suspended Parliament, his approval rating was more than 80 per cent. In September 2021, Mr Saied partially suspended the 2014 constitution, announcing his intention to put a “reshaped” model to a nationwide referendum.

The scale of Mr Saied’s self-decreed “extraordinary measures” has raised questions about checks and balances. Even so, a majority of Tunisians continue to support the President, hoping that his efforts, however extreme, to disentangle the Gordian knot of Tunisia’s political disarray, and to resuscitate the economy, will pay off.

While the need for a new constitution that brings dramatic change is clear, the shape of the document – as Mr Saied has previously implied – matters. As does the process by which it is realised.

And while there are questions about the level of power the executive branch of office will hold, Mr Saied has taken steps to preserve in the new constitution certain fundamental civil rights and freedoms, such as the right to protest, the freedom of belief and equality between the sexes. Many Tunisians had feared the erosion of the latter two under previous democratically elected, Islamist-led governments.

The old Tunisian constitution’s fatal flaw was that it made the country’s politics too wide a tent – extremist political parties captured the public square, and emptied the public purse fighting one another to advance their own, narrow interests. Mr Saied says his mission remains changing all of that. His new constitution certainly gives him the tools to do it, even if it does not immediately inspire confidence as a unifying document. If Tunisia is to eventually reach a place where positive changes last, the proof will come not only in this new constitution, but in how it is used.

Published: July 26, 2022, 4:00 AM