Tunisia has voted in a new constitution that gives unchecked powers to the office of President Kais Saied, following a referendum on Monday.  

With a low voter turnout of only 30.5% of Tunisian voters, 94.6% of present voters voted “yes” to the draft constitution, according to the preliminary results. 

There had been little doubt that the draft constitution would be approved, with most of the opposition calling for a boycott of the referendum. 

“The biggest unknown in this referendum is the turnout and whether it will be low or very low,” said analyst Youssef Cherif before the vote.

The Tunisian president’s opponents said that the new constitution enshrines Saied’s “coup d’etat” of 2021 and that “75% of Tunisians have refused to approve a putschist project.”

In July 2021, Saied suspended the Tunisian parliament and dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, taking over the rule of the country by decree. 

Initially, parliament’s suspension was supposed to be for just 30 days, but the president has continued to extend it. In Dec. 2021, Saied said the suspension would continue until elections planned for Dec. 2022.

In February, Saied consolidated his sole power over the judiciary by giving himself the power to propose judicial reforms and the prerogative to dismiss judges and block their promotion. 

In the same month, Saied established a provisional council in the place of the Supreme Judiciary Council, an independent body set up in 2016 to guarantee the independence of the judiciary. Saied accused the Supreme Judiciary Council of corruption and of acting for political interests.

“Tunisia has entered a new phase,” Saied said to his supporters in Tunis after polling stations had closed on Monday. “What the Tunisian people did … is a lesson to the world, and a lesson to history on a scale that the lessons of history are measured on.”

There have been warnings that the new constitution gives vast, unchecked powers to the president, which makes it possible for him to appoint a government without parliamentary approval. In addition, the new constitution makes it virtually impossible to remove Saied from office.

The new constitution “gives the president almost all powers and dismantles any check on his rule,” stated Said Benarbia, Middle East and North Africa Programme director for the International Commission of Jurists. “None of the safeguards that could protect Tunisians from Ben Ali-type violations are there anymore.”

The United States State Department on Tuesday noted “concerns that the new constitution includes weakened checks and balances that could compromise the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

According to Tunisia’s National Front for Salvation opposition alliance, the electoral board falsified turnout figures.

Opposition head Ahmed Najib Chebbi said the figures were “inflated and don’t fit with what observers saw on the ground.” 

He also said the electoral board “isn’t honest and impartial, and its figures are fraudulent.”

Hundreds of Saied’s supporters, however, celebrated the approval of the new constitution in the central Habib Bourguiba Avenue of Tunis. 

“Sovereignty is for the people;” “The people want to purify the country,” they chanted, according to media reports.

“We’re not afraid of anything. Only the corrupt and the officials who looted the state will be afraid,” said 46-year-old Noura bin Ayad, carrying a Tunisian flag.

“Now that we have given him a new political mandate to confront the political lobbies, we ask Saied to take care of our economic situation, prices and food provision,” said Naceur, another Saied supporter out celebrating on Monday.

The Tunisian economy has been declining steadily since 2011 with Saied and his government now hoping they will be able to secure a $4 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. 

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