What’s next for Tunisia after constitutional vote?

Preliminary results were released late Tuesday, although the electoral board controlled by Saied has until the end of August to announce a definitive outcome.

The President of the Independent Higher Authority for Elections, Farouk Bouasker, gives a press conference about the final result of the referendum on a draft constitution put forward by the country’s President, in Tunis on July 26, 2022. (Photo by Anis MILI / AFP)

Tunisia, almost certain to introduce a new constitution following a Monday referendum, is now heading for “dictatorship light” in a decisive break with its troubled post-revolt democratic system, experts say.

The electoral board said Tuesday evening that 94.6 percent of valid ballots had backed the new constitution with 30.5 percent turnout, citing preliminary results.

So what does the future hold in the birthplace of the 2011 Arab uprisings?

What happens now?

The draft constitution, the brainchild of President Kais Saied, hands almost unlimited powers to his office.

It is set to go into effect as soon as final results are announced.

Preliminary results were released late Tuesday, although the electoral board controlled by Saied has until the end of August to announce a definitive outcome.

Tunisia expert Youssef Cherif said “little will change in the short term, because Saied is just making official a situation that’s been in place for a year”.

Saied on July 25 last year sacked the government and froze parliament, and later began ruling by decree, dissolved parliament and seized control of the judiciary.

Elections to a largely neutered parliament are set for December.

Until then, “Kais Saied will have more powers than a pharaoh, a Middle Ages Caliph or the (Ottoman-era) Bey of Tunis,” said political scientist Hamadi Redissi.

Saied is determined to “press forward unilaterally, and very quickly” to leave “an exhausted opposition which will undoubtedly boycott the next election”, he said.

Cherif agreed.

Saied “is governing alone, the opposition is sidelined and the population isn’t interested,” he said.

Will Tunisia become a dictatorship?

“Tunisia is moving towards a less parliamentary and more presidential system,” Cherif said. 

“Examples from the region and from Tunisian history suggest that this will lead to a hardening of the regime and less democracy.”

Redissi predicts a form of “dictatorship light” under what he terms “the pressure-cooker strategy”.

“This keeps some margin of freedom like in Putin’s Russia… but it is not a real democracy,” he said.

Observers have noted that for now, there are few serious threats to freedom of speech in Tunisia — despite some prosecutions of prominent Saied critics.

But Cherif said protesters would likely have fewer spaces to operate in during the coming weeks.

“The security forces have been strengthened in recent months and their popularity as well as that of the army is still high,” he said.

Who can rein in the president?

Observers say it is far from clear whether Tunisia’s 24,000 civil society associations and political parties, products of the democratic space that opened up following the country’s 2011 revolt, will resist Saied.

“Until now, the resilience of political actors has been offset by the fragility of Tunisian democratic institutions,” Redissi said.

Cherif noted that some opposition remains active, such as the powerful UGTT trade union federation and a multitude of political parties and NGOs that could become more vocal after the summer.

Tackling the country’s deep economic woes will be essential if Saied is to avoid unrest. 

The prospect of a bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund that could force sweeping reforms and more economic pain for Tunisians could have political implications.

But “it will take time, maybe a year and a half, before frustration hits a peak,” Redissi said. 

What will become of opposition parties?

Tunisia’s opposition is divided, with many anti-Saied forces refusing to do business with the president’s nemesis the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party which has dominated politics for the past decade.

But joy among Saied’s supporters “will be confronted with the economic realities” soon, giving his rivals a basis for their messaging, Cherif predicted. 

Redissi however pointed out that authorities are preparing a new law on NGOs, political parties and associations.

Saied told supporters in a speech on Monday night that he had no intention of dissolving political parties.

But Redissi said: “the parties are already weak and in crisis. Saied will snuff them out with draconian rules on funding and organisation”.

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