The constitutional referendum in Tunisia: Said's options failed to attract Tunisians

The constitutional referendum in Tunisia: Said’s options failed to attract Tunisians

On July 25, 2022, Tunisia witnessed a referendum on the draft constitution proposed by President Kais Saied to change the country’s political system. The referendum day coincides with the first anniversary of the coup carried out by Said against the 2014 constitution, and comes after a series of decrees according to which most of the constitutional institutions and bodies were abolished, and the executive, legislative and judicial powers were concentrated in the hands of the president himself. The referendum was accompanied by many bickering over its legitimacy and the general context in which it took place since the issuance of the organizing decree and the installation of a new electoral commission, through the committee charged with drafting the constitution, and all the way to polling day.

“Electronic Consultation” is a reference for the draft constitution

Five months after Said’s coup against the constitution, he announced, in a speech he addressed to Tunisians, on December 13, 2021, a set of measures that he considered a road map for the new phase. The announced map included organizing an “electronic consultation”, naming a committee to draft documents related to the political, constitutional and electoral system, organizing a referendum on the constitution, leading to the organization of parliamentary elections during 2022.

The “electronic consultation”, which requires answering questions related to the political system and economic, social, cultural and educational affairs, opened on January 1, 2022, and continued until March 20 of the same year. Despite the mobilization of the media and the state’s administrative apparatus, the recruitment of mobile teams in cities and villages, the opening of media centers and the role of youth and culture, giving Internet users free access to the platform, and allowing the participation of minors, the consultation witnessed great reluctance, and the percentage of participants in it did not exceed 5.9 percent of the total adults 16 years and over; A percentage, despite its weakness, has been questioned; Given that it was not regulated by an independent body, nor was it monitored, and given the technical problems that plagued it as well, including the possibility of repeating the participation of one person by simply changing the SIM card that he uses to receive the passcode.

Despite the lack of participation, President Saeed considered that the consultation was successful, and that its results will be the reference for the “national dialogue” that will draft the constitution, and that participation in the dialogue will be limited to the parties that accept the reference of these results, and he followed this with the formation of the “National Consultative Commission for a New Republic.” To represent a framework for the “National Dialogue”, he assigned university professor Sadiq Belaid to chair it, and invited the heads of the parties supporting him, deans of law faculties, and representatives of the Tunisian General Labor Union, the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fishing, and the Tunisian League for Human Rights. , the National Council of Lawyers in Tunisia, and political figures, to the membership of this committee, but important parties; Such as the Tunisian General Labor Union, the Dean of the Faculty of Law, and others, boycotted the dialogue.

This was not a dialogue between the powerful social and political forces in Tunisia. The committee submitted the draft constitution to President Saied, amid a great debate among a number of its members regarding the monopoly of its Chairman Belaid to draft the constitution and excluding them from the consultations related to it. However, President Sa`id published another draft that differs even from the draft handed to him by Sadiq Belaid; This led to Belaid protesting and declaring his innocence over the published draft, which he considered to have “grave bumps and risks”, and a “paving the way for a disgraceful dictatorial regime.”

We conclude, then, that a paper was drafted by one person according to his plans and preconceived ideas, and that the electronic consultation and the advisory committee were merely formalities.

An election body and a customized campaign

The process of creating the conditions for holding the referendum included the President’s issuance of a decree on April 21, 2022, dissolving the ISIE Council; It is a constitutional body elected by the House of Representatives, and he dismissed its president and most of its members, and formed – in its place – a new council and appointed its head.

President Said’s dissolution of the Independent High Authority for Elections, and its replacement by another appointed council, came in the context of liquidating the gains of ten decades of democratic transition in Tunisia, paving the way for his acquisition of all powers, confiscation of institutions, and employing them to serve his project. Saeed realizes that the presence of an independent electoral commission would limit his interference in directing the two polling tracks programmed in the road map. They are the referendum on July 25, 2022, and the parliamentary elections scheduled for December 17, 2022.

Adapting the electoral commission was not the only challenge facing President Said to prepare for the date of the referendum. The reluctance to register in the electoral register continued, as was the case in the “electronic consultation”. To counter this, President Saied called on the commission’s appointed head to adopt automatic registration and consider all Tunisians 18 and over as voters, and give them the freedom to choose polling stations on the day of voting.

Unlike the electoral stations that the country has witnessed since 2011, the opposition parties were prevented from conducting any propaganda against the draft constitution, and the premature television campaign and radio recordings were limited to a limited number of people, associations and supporting parties; Most of them are newly formed parties, and they do not have any parliamentary representation, with the exception of the People’s Movement. The campaign was limited to some tents in city centers, and to hanging pictures of President Saeed on the facades of some buildings, and did not include any festival or popular meeting.

The authorities confronted all opposition movements; Anti-referendum, excessively violent. On July 22, 2022, a protest was organized by the Democratic Ettakatol Party for Labor and Freedoms, the Democratic Current Party, the Republican Party, the Modern Democratic Pole, and the Labor Party, parties affiliated with the “national campaign to drop the referendum”, and a number of journalists and civil activists. , to a violent attack by the security forces, who used batons and gas, and dragged some of the participating leaders by force and arrested dozens of them. Journalists covering the events were also beaten and abused.

controversy results

The polling stations opened their doors from six in the morning on 25 July 2022 to ten in the evening of the same day; It is the first time that the voting time extends to a full 16 hours, while on previous voting occasions offices were open from eight in the morning until six in the evening. As for the polling stations designated for voters residing outside Tunisia, they opened three days earlier.

The attention of most observers, since the beginning of the polling, was directed to the rates of participation. It was clear, through what was reported by the various media outlets from the polling stations, that the turnout was very weak; As the queues in front of the polling stations disappeared, the festive appearances were absent, the enthusiasm was absent, the elderly people attended, while the number of young people decreased. The cameras of the media, including those supporting the president, failed to take pictures of the crowds participating in the voting.

President Saeed did not miss the voting opportunity to attack his opponents, whom he described as “traitors” and “thieves”, and held them responsible for standing behind the low turnout, accusing them of distributing money to citizens to buy their selves, inciting them to boycott the referendum, and abusing the people by cutting off water, electricity and food supplies. , as if they are the ones who rule the country, describing the referendum as an “unprecedented high rise in history,” pledging to hold his opponents accountable, prosecute them, and recover “thousands of billions” that they looted.

Following the closure of the polling stations, the Election Commission announced the preliminary results of the vote. According to the commission, the number of voters inside the country reached 24,58,985 out of a total of 8,929,665 registered people; That is, a turnout rate of 27.54 percent, while Sabr Araa institutions questioned the announced figure from the commission, stressing that the turnout was lower. According to the same source, 3 percent of the polling participants voted “no”, while 92 percent voted “yes.” As for the results of polling abroad, participation rates, according to statements by election officials, ranged between 6 percent in Europe and 10 percent in Arab countries.

Despite the very modest participation rates, even according to the official results, the president considered the referendum a great success that expresses a strong popular will to proceed with the establishment of a new regime and severing with the past, pledging more measures to achieve what he described as “the will of the people.” The National Salvation Front, the largest component of the opposition, considered that the result of the referendum showed a “happy failure and isolation,” asking him to leave, and calling for the organization of early presidential and parliamentary elections.

For their part, the parties affiliated with the “national campaign to drop the referendum” questioned the announced results, describing the referendum as “fake”, pledging to “continue the resistance” and, in turn, called on President Said to resign.

The turnout in a referendum in this way was decisive; It was not preceded by a discussion in a representative body of any kind, nor a national dialogue, nor a consensus among societal forces, in addition to being a referendum on a constitution, and not just an ordinary electoral process. But the turnout was much lower than the turnout in any elections since the revolution.

After the referendum

The preliminary results of the referendum announced by the Elections Commission, and which the opposition questioned, showed that only a quarter of the voters went to the polling stations. This percentage indicates the president’s failure to persuade the majority of Tunisians to participate in the vote, as well as to engage in and approve the path he launched; In all previous electoral elections, the participation rate did not go down to 55 percent or less.

The controversy over the low participation rate is gaining more importance. Given the nature of this entitlement, a constitutional referendum differs from presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections, as it is the establishment of a long-term reference social contract that requires broad consensus and the involvement of various social, political and civic components.

Despite the controversy caused by the modest participation rate, in contrast to the widespread boycott in the referendum on the draft constitution, President Saeed continues to implement the project of consecrating all powers in his hands. In the next stage, it is heading to organize the parliamentary elections scheduled for December 2022, and there are no indications that it will change its course, or that it will listen to the opposition’s calls.

Most of the objective indicators are that the president will go ahead with drafting an electoral law that excludes parties from participating in the parliamentary elections scheduled for late 2022, and that he will make them restricted to individuals. This is in a systematic process to marginalize all forms of political organization in society. However, most indicators show that his task will not be easy. Given the widening of the opposition street, compared to what was the case after the coup that he carried out a year ago, and given the accumulation of failures in all economic and social files, the deterioration of services, the deterioration of the standard of living, and the growing public debt of the state, which are the challenges that President Saeed has dealt with so far. , with populist reactions that proved insufficient.

Conclusion

By organizing the referendum on the draft constitution, President Saied took another step in the path of dismantling Tunisia’s democratic process and establishing a new political system in which all powers would be confiscated. Despite creating the general context for the referendum; By appointing a new election body, harnessing the capabilities of the state, mobilizing the media, and banning opponents from campaigning against the referendum in the mainstream media, the announced results showed a broad boycott of the vote. However, Saeed seems to be continuing to complete the road map that he announced, in a way that allows for the sorting of a new political scene capable of guiding it; This is at a time when the economic and living crisis is worsening, which is paving the way for a new wave of popular protests.


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