Tunisian President Saied Holds Referendum, Critics Fear For Democracy

On Monday, July 25th, citizens in Tunisia voted to pass a new constitution in a referendum. Those in opposition to the proposed changes argue that the new constitution will hand President Kais Saied too much power, ultimately demolishing the democratic qualities the country developed after the 2011 revolution.

Furthermore, the new constitution will give nearly all political power to the president and undermine the strength of the parliament by giving Saied the ability to appoint cabinet members, terminate any government members, and more. For example, article 112 of the new constitution reads that “the government is responsible to the president.” While the constitution technically passed, less than a third of all eligible voters participated. 

President Saied himself announced that the referendum would be the foundation for Tunisia’s new republic. Some voters voiced irritation and disappointment. Samia, a woman interviewed by Reuters at La Marsa near Tunis echoed the sentiments of many by commenting, “I’m frustrated by all of them. I’d rather enjoy this hot day than go and vote.” Several Tunisian judges are on a hunger strike to protest. After 33 days without food, Judge Mohamed Tahar Kanzari told the Washington Post that “this is the only peaceful manner in which to voice ourselves… This is the only peaceful and legal way — to put your life on the line.” Last month, Saied used his new power to dismiss several judges, which included Judge Kanzari. Ultimately, however, most people are more concerned about the country’s current economic hardships than Saied’s attempt to grasp more power.

The referendum is disheartening, especially when looking at Tunisia’s democratic improvements since the Arab Spring – a series of pro-democracy protests starting in 2010 in the Middle East and North African region. Tunisia is regarded by many as one of the only successes that came out of the Arab Spring. In 2019, Tunisia became the first country to undergo a peaceful transfer of power from one democratically elected government leader to another. 

Last summer, Saied suspended Tunisia’s parliament and dismissed the prime minister. This was then followed by disbanding the High Judicial Council and firing of judges – moves all leading up to Saied’s creation of the new constitution. Critics of the referendum have already challenged its legitimacy, partly due to the nature of its creation without consultation or involvement of any Tunisian political or civil society groups, and partly because of the low voter turnout.

Currently, the situation has garnered little attention from the West, although the U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken did comment on Thursday that “Tunisia has experienced an alarming erosion of democratic norms over the past year and reversed many of the Tunisian people’s hard-won gains since 2011.”

Saied’s call for more power has been interpreted by some as a way to overcome the political infighting of factions that cannot work together and which has resulted in numerous recent governmental failures. This can explain why some citizens of Tunisia are still looking for a change and showing support for the new constitution. However, giving unchecked power to one man is not the answer for Tunisia in the long run. As the country continues to struggle with an economic crisis, Saied has done little with his current power and position to find a solution to the situation. 

Looking forward, one can hope that Tunisia will work through the economic crisis that is affecting so many, despite the reworking of government structures to Saied’s benefit. Furthermore, peaceful protests like those from Tunisian judges and civil societies protesting may receive more attention from others in the country, as well as officials in other countries that care about the state of democracy.