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Tunisia approves new constitution despite low turnout and 'fraud' accusations

The electoral commission declares 94.6 percent voting 'yes' and 30.5 percent turnout, but opposition groups question results
President of the election authority, Farouk Bouasker, gives a press conference about the final result of the referendum on a draft constitution in Tunis on 26 July 2022 (AFP)

Tunisia's electoral commission announced on Tuesday evening the approval of a new constitution granting President Kais Saied unchecked executive, legislative and judicial powers.

The head of the electoral commission, Farouk Bouasker, declared the acceptance of the controversial draft, with 94.6 percent voting "yes", on a 30.5 percent turnout.

The vote, held on Monday, came one year after a dramatic seizure of power that saw Saied unseat the government and freeze parliament, in a move critics have branded a "coup".

Nine million Tunisians were eligible to vote, but no minimum participation had been set for a "yes" vote to pass, and no provisions had been made for a "no" result.

Saied, himself a constitutional lawyer, was on a committee of experts he appointed to revise a draft of the 2014 constitution - the country’s first since the 2011 revolution.

The president had urged citizens to vote in favour of the charter if they wanted to live a life where there is “no misery, nor terrorism”.

But critics have denounced the document as “dictatorial” and “theocratic”, codifying a “one-man rule”.  

Since his 25 July 2021 power grab, Saied has ruled by decree, with critics describing his actions as undermining the democratic gains made by Tunisia after the 2011 Arab uprising that drove longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power.

Saied has denied claims of a coup and said his power grab was necessary to stamp out corruption and end Tunisia's political deadlock.

'Fraudulent results'

The National Salvation Front, an opposition alliance, has questioned the results and turnout figures.

Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, the head of the alliance, said the figures were "inflated and don't fit with what observers saw on the ground".

The electoral board "isn't honest and impartial, and its figures are fraudulent", he told AFP.

'It is expected that the electoral law that Saied will approve will guarantee his followers victory and exclude certain parties such as the Ennahda'

- Rached Ghannouchi

Meanwhile, the head of the Ennahda movement, Rached Ghannouchi, described the referendum as a "farce", stressing that the majority of the Tunisian people rejected it and did not give it legitimacy.

"The constitution's procedures were invalid, and its content was the consolidation of a dictatorial regime that Tunisia was experiencing before the revolution (January 2011),” he told Al Jazeera Mubasher channel on Tuesday.

Ghannouchi expected Saied to pass an electoral law that "defines the rules of the game".

"It is expected that the electoral law that Saied will approve will guarantee his followers victory and exclude certain parties such as the Ennahda movement."

"The referendum failed to mobilise more than a quarter of the electorate. The resulting constitution does not reflect the views of the majority of Tunisians and as such lacks democratic legitimacy," said Said Benarbia, the Middle East-North Africa regional director at the Geneva-based organisation, told Middle East Eye after exit polls were announced on Tuesday.

The new constitution effectively ends the hybrid parliamentary-presidential system agreed following the revolution, and introduces a fully presidential system. 

The president will appoint the prime minister and other cabinet ministers and have the power to unilaterally dissolve parliament. 

Under the 2014 constitution, a parliamentary majority was required to form a government. 

The president will also have the power to appoint judges, who will be banned from strikes, in an apparent reaction to the nationwide walkout held by judges last month to oppose Saied's sacking of 57 of their colleagues.

There will be no protocol for removing the president - something which the previous charter allowed for if there was a “blatant violation of the constitution”. 

While there is still a two-term limit on the presidency, the 2014 provision that stipulated the constitution could not be amended to increase the number of terms has been removed. 

Who wrote the new constitution?

While the 2014 constitution took two years to finish after lengthy consultations by a constituent-elected assembly, the new charter was written in just four weeks by a group of hand-picked jurists and law professors.

The approved charter was drafted in June by a committee chosen by Saied and headed by jurist Sadeq Belaid. 

Tunisia enters new era as President Saied declares victory in constitutional referendum
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As part of the process, the president also set up a national consultative commission, consisting of social, legal, and economic committees, as well as a national dialogue committee.

The commission and the drafting committee did not include any representatives from Tunisia's leading political parties, including Ennahda, Saied's main opponent, or the Free Constitutional parties.

The national commission had initially included the UGTT, the most powerful union in the country, but its leaders said the organisation would not participate in constitution talks. 

After the first draft was published on 30 June, Belaid remarkably withdrew his support for the charter. 

He said that the published document had “nothing to do with the text we drafted and submitted to the president”. Belaid added that one particular article would give the president “very wide powers…that could lead to a dictatorial regime”. 

An updated version of the draft was published on 8 July following the criticism, but the amendments were mostly minor and made no changes to the range of powers that would be given to the president.