Tunisians 'boycott' referendum on controversial constitution giving Saied 'authoritarian' powers

Tunisians 'boycott' referendum on controversial constitution giving Saied 'authoritarian' powers
Initial results from a referendum on a new constitution giving President Kais Saied wide powers showed a majority yes vote, but with most people staying away from the polls.
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Initial results showed a turnout of only 27.5% [Getty]

Tunisia's referendum on a controversial new constitution, which strengthens the powers of the head of state and risks the return of authoritarian rule, has seen a low turnout.

Only 27.5 percent of 9.3 million registered voters cast ballots, according to preliminary results published by the ISIE electoral commission late on Monday.

However, President Kais Saied celebrated an almost certain victory of the "yes" vote in the referendum, with 92-93 percent of those who cast their ballots supporting the constitution, according to an exit poll taken by the Sigma Conseil institute. Initial results are due on Tuesday afternoon.

The poll was widely boycotted by opponents of the president and pro-democracy advocates.

After the projected outcome was announced on national television, Saied supporters drove cars in procession through central Tunis, waving flags and beeping their horns. Some sang the national anthem or shouted: "We would sacrifice our souls and our blood for you, Saied!"

At around 1am GMT, the president appeared in front of a jubilant crowd.

"Tunisia has entered a new phase," he said, according to local television, adding that "there was a large crowd in the polling stations and the rate would have been higher if the vote took place over two days".

The referendum was held a year to the day after Saied sacked the Tunisian government and suspended parliament in what has been widely described as a "coup".

Without naming them, the president promised "all those who have committed crimes against the country will be held accountable for their actions".

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'No safeguards'

Saied's critics have warned the new constitution would lock in presidential powers that could tip Tunisia back into dictatorship.

The new text would place the president in command of the army, allow him to appoint a government without parliamentary approval, and make him virtually impossible to remove from office.

He could also present draft laws to parliament, which MPs would be obliged to give priority.

The new charter "gives the president almost all powers and dismantles any check on his rule and any institution that might exert any kind of control over him", said Said Benarbia, regional director of the International Commission of Jurists.

"None of the safeguards that could protect Tunisians from Ben Ali-type violations are there anymore."

The text "doesn't even envisage the possibility of a no vote", he added.

The charter would replace a 2014 constitution that was a hard-won compromise between Islamist-leaning and secular forces.

Saied's supporters blame the resulting parliamentary-presidential system and dominant Islamist-influenced Ennahdha party for years of crises and corruption.

The draft constitution was published this month with little reference to an earlier text produced by a committee Saied had appointed.

Sadeq Belaid, a mentor of Saied who led the process, warned that the first draft risked creating a dictatorship.

Slight amendments did little to address such concerns.

Saied, a 64-year-old law professor, won the 2019 presidential election in a landslide, building on his image as an incorruptible political outsider.

That poll saw a much higher turnout than the current referendum, with over 55% of voters casting their ballots in the second round.

The president has appeared increasingly isolated of late, mostly limiting his public comments to recorded videos - often diatribes against domestic foes branded "snakes", "germs" and "traitors".

But he has vowed to protect freedoms and describes his political project as a return to the path of the revolution, despite activists widely rejecting these promises.

Labourer Ridha Nefzi, a 43-year-old supporter of the referendum, said: "The country's run into a brick wall. But today we turn a new page."

But Saied's popularity is tempered by soaring inflation, youth unemployment of 40 percent, and the potentially tough conditions attached to a looming bailout by the International Monetary Fund.