One-man rule: On the Tunisian referendum

Tunisia is slipping into constitutional authoritarianism under Kais Saied

Updated - July 30, 2022 01:11 am IST

Published - July 30, 2022 01:10 am IST

With over 94% voters backing a new Constitution that would see the return of a strong presidency, Tunisia’s brief experiment with post-revolutionary parliamentary democracy has come to an end. President Kais Saied, who sacked the elected government of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspended Parliament last year (which he later dissolved), has been pushing for constitutional changes that would institutionalise his one-man rule. Over the past year, Mr. Saied has ruled the country through decrees, awarding himself more powers. He has fired many judges, seized independent institutions such as the election commission and sidelined political parties, including the Ennahda, the Islamist party which had the most number of elected representatives in the dissolved Parliament. With the new Constitution, which awards him ultimate authority to form governments, name Ministers, appoint judges and even present laws, Mr. Saied is set to rule Tunisia with unchecked powers. Tunisia was the shining example for a peaceful transition to democracy from dictatorship after the Arab Spring protests rocked many countries in West Asia and North Africa. While the rest witnessed foreign interventions, counter-revolutions or widespread chaos, Tunisia got a new Constitution and multiparty governments. But Mr. Saied, who also claims to represent the spirit of the 2011 revolution, has effectively taken the North African country back to absolute presidency, which could slip into constitutional authoritarianism.

When Mr. Saied, a former law professor with no political experience, was elected President in 2019, not many had expected him to rewrite the country’s destiny in such a short span of time. When Tunisia fell into political instability amid a worsening economic and COVID-triggered healthcare crisis, Mr. Saied found an opportunity to expand his authority. He blamed the country’s parliamentary system and the infighting among the political class for the problems Tunisia faced. His move to suspend parliamentary democracy was relatively popular at that time. But Tunisia has seen little progress under Mr. Saied’s direct rule. His popularity has fallen from 82% last summer to 59% in April this year. The country’s economy grew 2.9% in 2021, after a 9.2% contraction in the previous year. Unemployment is 16% and inflation, 8.1%. Faced with a growing fiscal deficit and a current account shortfall, the government is negotiating with the IMF for a $4 billion loan. But any cost-cutting measures that would come with the loan would be met with strong opposition by the country’s powerful unions. The growing public discontent was visible in the referendum. Despite the regime’s high-decibel propaganda, only 30% registered voters turned up at polling stations as most political parties had called for a boycott. Mr. Saied may have clinched a victory with the ‘yes’ vote, but with mounting economic ills, an alienated opposition and growing discontent among the public, he will find it difficult to steer Tunisia, still in its revolutionary fervour, through the storm. If he fails, he will have nobody to blame but himself.

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