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Tunis — Tunisians voted on Monday on a new constitution that critics of President Kais Saied fear will dismantle the democratic gains of the 2011 revolution by handing him nearly total power, with analysts expecting it to pass amid a low turnout.
The divided opposition has urged a boycott, calling Saied’s moves a coup that risks flinging Tunisia back into the autocratic era from before the revolution and putting the final nail into the coffin of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
Casting his vote, Saied hailed the referendum as the foundation of a new republic, a year to the day after he ousted an elected parliament, established emergency rule and began governing by decree.
Western democracies that looked to Tunisia as the only success story of the Arab Spring have yet to comment on the proposed new constitution, though they have urged Tunisia to return to the democratic path over the past year.
Early voting figures showed low turnout, with few people queuing at polling stations Reuters visited on Monday — a public holiday. The electoral commission said 12% of voters had taken part by midday, seven hours into the 16-hour voting period.
“I’m frustrated by all of them. I’d rather enjoy this hot day than go and vote,” said Samia, a woman sitting with her husband and teenage son on the beach at La Marsa near Tunis.
Others voiced support for Saied.
Casting his vote at Rue Marseilles in downtown Tunis, Illyes Moujahed said the former law professor was the only hope.
“I’m here to save Tunisia from collapse. To save it from years of corruption and failure,” said Moujahed.
But there has been little evident enthusiasm for Saeid or his opponents in the run-up to the referendum, with only small crowds attending rallies for and against his plans.
Standing outside a cafe in the capital, Samir Slimane said he was not interested in voting. “I have no hope of change. Kais Saied will not change anything. He only seeks to have all the powers,” he said.
Many Tunisians welcomed Saied’s sudden seizure of power last summer as a corrective to years of political infighting and government failure by ruling factions.
But since seizing power, Saied has done little to address deepening economic hardship. Tunisia is seeking a rescue package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to avert a collapse in state finances.
Polls are due to close at 9pm GMT. The authorities have yet to say when results will be announced.
The rules set by Saied require no minimum level of participation among the 9.2-million registered voters. He has stipulated that the constitution will come into effect once the final results are published, and has not said what happens if voters reject it.
His critics have also cast doubt on the vote’s integrity after he replaced the electoral commission board this year and made a speech on Monday despite electoral laws imposing campaign silence on polling day.
The new constitution shifts power back to the presidency and away from parliament where an Islamist party, Ennahda, has been the biggest faction since the revolution.
For many Tunisians, the legislature became synonymous with bickering and political paralysis in recent years.
“To restore Tunisia and establish discipline we need a strong man who uses a stick,” said Monzher Galaoui, a man at a cafe near the polling station in the capital’s poor Ettadamon district.
Groups that oppose Saied have held scattered, small protests in the run-up to the referendum, underlining their disunity.
Ennahda took part in a protest on Saturday, while civil society organisations and smaller parties held one on Friday. A party that backed the pre-revolution autocracy held its own on both days.
Economic decline since 2011 has left many people angry at the parties that have governed since the revolution and disillusioned with the political system they ran.
Of the three parliamentary elections and two presidential elections since the revolution, the lowest turnout, of 41%, was in 2019 for the chamber dissolved by Saied.
A turnout on Monday far below that rate would further call into question the legitimacy of the new constitution.
Saied’s critics say his bid to remake the political system has distracted attention from the economic crisis.
The government hopes to secure a $4bn loan from the IMF. But it faces stiff union opposition to the required reforms, including cutting fuel and food subsidies.
Tunisian officials have previously said that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pledged aid. But they have yet to follow through.
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.