Tunisia’s President Kais Saied has expanded his power with a new constitution, increasing concerns about the imminent end of democracy in the Mediterranean country. As the electoral authority announced on Wednesday night, 94.6 percent of voters voted in favor of the new constitution in a referendum.
It can now come into force despite a very low turnout. The constitution no longer provides for an authority that could control the president or even remove him from office.
Ex-law professor Saied is expanding his power as head of state at the expense of parliament and the judiciary. In the future, he will be able to appoint and dismiss the government and judges without the consent of Parliament. He should also be able to dissolve the parliament.
The constitution should come into force automatically when the official results are announced. Although only just under a third of those entitled to vote cast their votes in the referendum, a simple majority was sufficient. Saied has also announced that he intends to change voting rights.
So far, Saied has enforced many far-reaching decisions by decree, thereby circumventing the previous constitution. It was introduced in 2014 and curtailed the president’s powers in favor of parliament and the head of government. The new constitution is part of a political restructuring driven by Saied.
A year before the referendum, he deposed the then head of government and forced parliament to suspend its work. Saied later dissolved the parliament altogether. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in Tunisia towards the end of this year.
Saied had previously engaged in a month-long power struggle with the conservative Islamic party Ennahda, which he significantly weakened. The Islamists, who are considered comparatively moderate, had been the strongest force in parliament and condemned Saied’s controversial measures as a “coup d’état”. However, they have clearly lost popularity among the general public. The party is widely regarded as corrupt, and the record of its parliamentary work as disappointing.
The Arab uprisings began in Tunisia in 2010. At that time, several countries in the Arab world brought their long-term autocratic rulers to their knees. Tunisia was the only country in the region to make the transition to democracy. Critics accuse Saied of wanting to return Tunisia to a dictatorship.
The protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms is endangered by the new constitution, said US State Department spokesman Ned Price. The mutual control of political institutions has been weakened by the new constitution. The think tank Atlantic Council wrote that Tunisia is experiencing “one of the most difficult moments since independence from France in 1956”.
Tunisia is divided between Saied’s supporters and opponents. There have been repeated protests on both sides for months. The opposition called for a boycott of the referendum and criticized the entire process as illegal. The referendum, in which nine million people were called to vote, is also seen as a public judgment on Saied’s record as president.
Many Tunisians have more urgent concerns than a referendum on political leadership. Many of them are poorer today than they were in the days of long-time ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted from office by mass protests in 2011. There is great doubt as to whether democracy as a form of government is suitable for overcoming the economic crisis.