Palestinians are divided after talks with US and French leaders over the president’s next move

TUNIS: Tunisians will vote Monday on a constitution that would give President Kais Saied more powers, a key moment in his plan to overhaul the political system.

The referendum comes exactly one year to the day after Saied’s ouster from government and the suspension of parliament.

Opponents have called for a boycott, but while observers have predicted most Tunisians will oppose the election, few doubt the charter will be passed.

“The biggest unknown in this referendum is turnout and whether it will be low or very low,” said analyst Youssef Cherif.

Those who vote yes “will do so either because they like the president or because they hate those who have ruled Tunisia since the 2011 uprising that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali,” he added.

The text aims to replace the mixed presidential-parliamentary system enshrined in a 2014 constitution that hailed Tunisia as the only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab uprisings.

The leader of Saied’s ‘new republic’ would have ultimate executive power and would appoint a government without requiring a vote of confidence in Parliament.

The President would also direct the armed forces and appoint judges who would be banned from striking.

Saied’s rivals, including the Ennahdha party, which has dominated Tunisian politics since 2011, accuse him of pulling the country back into autocracy.

The process that led to the referendum was also widely criticized.

“People don’t know what they’re voting on or why,” Cherif said.

Political analyst Hamadi Redissi said that unlike in 2014, there had been little debate among all stakeholders over the text, which was “hastily written in just a few weeks”.

Saied, who has ruled by decree since last year and has taken control of the judiciary and the electoral board, held an online public consultation ostensibly to guide a committee in drafting a new constitution.

But Sadeq Belaid, the legal expert leading that process, has disavowed Saied’s draft, saying it was “completely different” from what his committee had presented and warned it could install “a dictatorial regime”.

Saied released a slightly amended document just over two weeks before the vote, but even under the new draft it would be virtually impossible to force the president out of office.

Redissi said the country would not become like China or Egypt but might end up resembling Turkey or Russia.

Isabelle Werenfels, a researcher at German think tank SWP, warned that Tunisia was “moving towards a closed system”.

“If you look at the ongoing dismantling of institutions that oversee freedom, democracy and new rules, it looks like the nets are tightening,” she said.

The campaign by registrants to publicly express a position on the Constitution has been lukewarm.

Only seven organizations or individuals are registered for the ‘No’ campaign, compared to 144 for ‘Yes’.

Posters with the Tunisian flag have emerged in Tunis, bearing a phrase from an open letter published by Saied urging a ‘yes’ ‘so that the state will not falter and the goals of the revolution will be achieved’.

While the recent election saw low turnout, Saied himself, a former legal scholar who is considered incorruptible and removed from the widely distrusted political elite, was elected in 2019 with a turnout of 58 percent.

Today, Tunisians are grappling with grueling economic problems, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, and “very few people care about politics,” Cherif said.

Saied urgently needs to find solutions to an economy plagued by high inflation, youth unemployment of up to 40 percent and a third of the population living in poverty.

The country is negotiating a rescue package with the International Monetary Fund, but experts warn the liberalization reforms the lender is likely to demand in return could spark social unrest.

Meanwhile, fears are growing for Tunisia’s much-vaunted, if flawed, democracy.

Freedom House and The Economist have already downgraded Tunisia from free to partially free, Cherif noted.

“The fact that people can freely express themselves or vote ‘no’ without going to jail shows that we are not in a traditional dictatorship,” he said.

But, he added, “this constitution could create an authoritarian regime similar to the regimes Tunisia experienced before 2011.”

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