What future for Tunisia after the constitutional referendum?

On July 25, Tunisians voted in a nationwide referendum to approve a new constitution that will give the president, Kais Saied, sweeping new powers, centralizing executive control while removing checks from the legislative and judicial branches. While the legitimacy of the vote was called into question due to a low turnout of 30.5% (a figure disputed due to discrepancies in the figures published by the state electoral body), an estimated 94% of those who voted supported the new constitution. Following the vote, here’s what we might expect in the future.

What will President Kais Saied do next?

In his speech in downtown Tunis immediately after the end of the vote on July 25, President Saied has already declared that his next priority is to change the electoral system. Saied has been criticizing the electoral system established in 2011 for even longer than he has been criticizing the 2014 constitution. have had a say, and he has expressed a desire to remove elected officials for failure to perform their duties (a similar “recall” system exists in the California state system). This possibility of dismissal already exists in article 61 of the new constitution, but it remains to be further specified by a new electoral law.

This prioritization reflects Saied’s laser focus on his long-term plan to overhaul the governance structure. By contrast, pressing economic issues like the debt crisis, an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan being negotiated, and the related issues of inflation, wage depreciation, and collapsing public services appear to have been delegated. to his ministers or were not given priority at all. On negotiations with the IMF, however, the resistance of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) poses a political problem that will inevitably fall on the president’s desk.

Saied could also attempt to expand and consolidate his control over the security sector. This will build on earlier changes he made to senior staff within the Home Office. For example, former intelligence chief Lazhar Loungou was reportedly extradited from Algeria to Tunisia just days before the July 25 vote. Loungou – long accused of being aligned with Ennahdha – had been fired and placed under house arrest and faced several criminal charges after Saied took power last year. But Loungou then managed to escape to Algeria, suggesting that key elements of the justice and security sector are still not under Saied’s control and instead answer to other centers of power.

What will the opposition do next?

Political parties are already contesting the results of the referendum following discrepancies in the Independent High Authority for Elections’ own reports. They will continue to challenge the legitimacy not only of the referendum but also of the constitution. It is highly unlikely that this will lead to anything substantial given that even Saied’s most vocal critics admit that the ‘yes’ vote did indeed win the polls overwhelmingly (albeit on terms they consider unfair). and illegitimate, especially in light of the relatively low turnout). However, the parties are likely to use this questioning of referendum procedures to further tarnish Saied’s international image – perhaps in the hope that criticism from the United Nations, the United States or the European Union will rein in the powers of Said.

A more interesting approach is that of Abir Moussi, the leader of the anti-revolutionary Free Destourian Party (PDL). While the PDL has come out against the constitutional referendum, Moussi has previously signaled that she wants a new constitution which, like the new one, is a presidential system. She has also long praised the rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (under whom she served as a senior civil servant in the ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally party). Because of this history, his stance against Saied as a “dictator” rings hollow, and it’s likely his opposition is primarily aimed at carving out his own political niche and creating a path to power. After the referendum, Moussi called for an early presidential election, a sign that she wants to use the new constitution to her political advantage until she and her party are in power and can adapt it to their own needs again. .

What will civil society do next?

Opposition parties aren’t the only ones suing the referendum results. IWatch, a transparency and anti-corruption watchdog, also filed a complaint on behalf of a citizen. Other civil society groups have been increasingly critical of President Saied’s government, including the UGTT and the National Union of Tunisian Journalists. The July 23 UGTT statement used some of its strongest terms to date, noting that it “holds the President of the Republic responsible for this repressive drift” after the police attacked journalists the day before during a demonstration in downtown Tunis.

As Tunisia begins negotiations for a new loan agreement with the IMF, seen as crucial to keeping the country’s credit lines open and able to import food in the absence of food sovereignty, the UGTT will play a key role. He will at least try to reduce the austerity conditions demanded, or even veto, a loan program that he will probably see as making too many concessions in terms of lowering wages and privatizing public companies. A June IMF statement on Tunisia noted that the IMF “stresses[d] the need for stakeholders to unite” on an economic reform program to get the deal, but an IMF statement in July simply expressed “the hope that the social partners and other important stakeholders can unite” – perhaps signaling that the IMF believes that the UGTT will have less power under a presidential regime to obtain concessions. However, even after the referendum, the UGTT still has the greatest capacity to play an opposition role.

Fadil Aliriza is the founder and editor-in-chief of Meshkal.org, an independent English and Arabic news site covering Tunisia, and a non-resident researcher in the MEI’s North Africa and Sahel Program.

Photo by Jdidi Wassim/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

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