Disillusioned Tunisians head to polls for president’s referendum

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© Mehdi Chebil, France 24
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Tunisians go to the polls on Monday in a constitutional referendum expected to create a presidential regime concentrating power in the hands of the head of state Kais Saied. While many international observers see the vote as just a power grab, at a polling station in the capital Tunis, many people said they want to turn the page on a decade of political and economic instability as the Arab Spring soured.

A few voters cast their ballots quickly then head out as police officers watch them in the courtyard of the Mongi Slim school in Tunis’s Cité Olympique district. Thanks to the low turnout at this polling station, it takes just ten minutes for people to vote on the proposed new constitution.

There was a big contrast with the atmosphere at this polling station at the same time and place when Tunsians voted in the country’s first free and fair parliamentary elections in October 2014. Eight years ago there was tremendous enthusiasm; some voters turned up draped in the Tunsian flag. This time, a sense of bitterness, even anger, was all too palpable. Every voter interviewed here said they back President Saied’s proposed new constitution, hoping to turn their backs on the instability that racked the country after the Arab Spring began in Tunisia and precipitated the 2011 revolution.

“This vote is very special because it’s going to get rid of the Islamists! That’s why we’re turning out at the ballot box today,” said Adel Ouennich, referring to the prominent role Islamist party Ennahda has played in post-revolution governments. “I’m all for having an all-powerful president who’ll give the country strong leadership,” the 56-year-old engineer went on. “It’s a lot better than weak governments where everyone passes the buck.”

In fact, Saied has already enjoyed colossal presidential powers since what many regarded as his coup in July 2021. Saied had already been in power since October 2019 – but decided to dissolve parliament and get rid of many of the checks and balances put in place by the 2014 constitution. Independent actors like the judiciary and media have effectively been brought under his thumb.

This referendum is intended to codify these changes in law, entrenching a system that gives Saied vast powers without accountability.

But such is the disillusionment amongst many Tunisians that they see these concerns as mere procedural qualms. “This new constitution isn’t great but we can make it better as we go along,” said Sarah Boughriba, who came to vote with her parents and son. “We’re not scared of having a bit of a dictatorship that cleans up the country,” said the 28-year-old, who argued that an enduring authoritarian regime is not possible in post-Arab Spring Tunisia. “We’ve got rid of a dictator once so we could do it again.”

It is not surprising to find that voters are unanimously in favour of Saied’s new constitution. The majority of the opposition is boycotting the polls because they do not want democratic backsliding to be legitimated. Therefore, turnout is the big issue in this referendum. A high abstention rate would allow Saied to claim that the people are "still on his side". A low abstention rate would weaken his populist rhetoric and the opposition could claim the majority of Tunisians reject the new regime.

But it was noteworthy just how much bread-and-butter issues dominated discussion of the issues at stake in this referendum.

“I’ve been living in France for five years,” Boughriba said. “I’m homesick but it pains me to see how things are going here. Amongst my friends, all the university graduates are emigrating. We’re fed up; it can’t go on like this.”

A few miles away, in the working-class area Ettadhamen, a small but continuous stream of voters filed into a primary school converted into a polling station for the day. The school is in a worse state than those in central Tunis. Here too, a sense of bitterness prevails.

“After the fall of the dictator Ben Ali, we thought that with democracy we’d get the kind of lives people have in Europe. Our situation has actually become even more difficult. We’re still earning the same wages but everything’s become more expensive and the cost of credit has gone up as well. We have to really tighten our belts in the last ten days of the month because otherwise we’d run out of money,” said Mohsen Bechedly, a secondary school physical education teacher.

“We Tunsians want a simple life,” the 51-year-old continued. “We’re not talking about holidays in the Caribbean – we just want to be able to feed and clothe our children properly. That’s why we’re looking for someone to get us out of the last ten years.”

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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