24.07.2022, Tunesien, Tunis: Ein tunesischer Soldat sichert die Wahlurnen mit den von der Unabhängigen Hohen Behörde für Wahlen (ISIE) gedruckten Stimmzetteln. Der Präsident und frühere Juraprofessor Saied hofft, die alte Verfassung von 2014 mit einer Volksabstimmung am Montag, 25.07.2022, zu ersetzen. Dadurch würden wieder deutlich mehr Befugnisse beim Präsidenten liegen und andere Institutionen geschwächt, vor allem Parlament und Justiz. Foto: Khaled Nasraoui/dpa +++ dpa-Bildfunk +++

Eleven years after the democratic transition in Tunisia, the North African country is on the verge of relapsing into autocracy. President Kais Saied will have his people vote on a new constitution this Monday that will give him dictatorial powers. Quarrels in the opposition and disenchantment with politics among the electorate are playing into the hands of the president. It is unlikely that Saied will be able to solve Tunisia’s deep-seated problems with his newfound power. Instead of more stability, the new era could bring more unrest and protests.

The referendum takes place exactly one year to the day after the President ousted Parliament. At that time, Saied had the parliament closed, citing the corruption and incompetence of the political class as the reason for this. After years of political stagnation and the economic crisis, many of the almost twelve million Tunisians supported the president.

Now Saied, a 64-year-old constitutional lawyer and political outsider, has drafted a new basic law almost single-handedly. His constitution is sewn with such a hot needle that the first draft presented at the end of June contained many spelling mistakes and contradictions. A second bill ironed out some shortcomings, but was only presented to the people just under three weeks before the referendum. The text for a “new republic” gives the President the bulk of power. In the future, Saied can dissolve parliament, dismiss the government, appoint judges and, in the event of an unspecified “imminent threat” to the state, extend his own term of office. The constitution does not provide for the possibility of removing the president from office.

Saied’s draft has met with opposition from most parties and large sections of civil society. The new constitution “closes the brackets of democracy” that opened up in 2011 with the overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, says activist and entrepreneur Mouna Ben Halima. Back then, when the Tunisians shook off Ben Ali’s rule, they unleashed the wave of protests of the Arab Spring. Only in Tunisia did the transition to democracy succeed.

With the new constitution, the pendulum is swinging back towards autocracy, said Ben Halima at an online conference of the Middle East Institute in Washington. Although the opposition rejects Saied’s constitution, they have not been able to agree on a common line. There was no broad social dialogue about the new constitution, partly because many Tunisians hardly have time for it due to inflation and unemployment. “The Tunisians are exhausted,” said Ben Halima. “For them, order is more important than basic rights.”

Nevertheless, Saied is playing it safe in the referendum. Only some of the 11,000 polling stations will be able to be inspected by independent observers on Monday. In addition, there are no minimum participation requirements. Even if few Tunisians turn out to vote, a relative majority of yes votes can win the president.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, Tunisia will remain in crisis. Because urgently needed economic reforms have been delayed, there is a risk of national bankruptcy in the coming months, as Anthony Dworkin from the ECRF think tank warns in an analysis. Saied has promised reforms to persuade the International Monetary Fund to provide billions in new aid. From Monday he will not only have to talk, but to act. The President will have to push through painful cuts in the bloated bureaucracy if he wants to be successful. The economic and socio-political misery could therefore become more dangerous for Saied’s power than the dispute over the constitution.