Once regarded as the sole democracy that has emerged from the mass protests of the Arab Spring in 2011, Tunisia is now experiencing extensive setbacks in its path to democracy. In a referendum on August 16th Tunisia adopted a new constitution implementing a presidential system without check and balances on the president’s powers– despite low turnout in the vote and with little debate or public input.
Tunisia’s transition to democracy began with the death of Mohamed Bouazizi. In an act of sheer desperation and protest due to humiliation and mistreatment by local officials the Tunisian fruit vendor committed suicide by self-immolation in the town of Sidi Bouzid and triggered the Arab Spring. The sparked revolution was directed against oppression, corruption and economic hardship under the authoritarian Ben Ali regime and lead to much turmoil in Tunisia. Thousands of protesters demanded political freedom, economic opportunity and self-dignity. As a result of the civil resistance a democratic constitution was established in 2014 enabling free and fair elections.
However, power struggles within the government, frequent changes of government, a fragmented party political landscape and widespread corruption as well as persistent economic crisis all played a part in stalling the democratic reform process. The living conditions of ordinary Tunisians have barely improved since the political changes that took place ten years ago. The increased discontent of the Tunisian public resulted in a landslide victory of President Kais Saied, an outsider without any political experience. From that point on, Tunisia reversed course shifting away from the democratisation process and losing all of its democratic achievements. Many Tunisians increasingly saw Saied as a threat to Tunisian democracy and civil rights, which lead to an increasing number of protests from political parties, civil society organizations, women’s rights groups.
In late July 2021, President Saied used the nationwide protests about government policies and its management of the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to extent presidential power by taking over the running of the government, dismissing the prime minister and freezing parliament. Saied furthermore announced a partial suspension of the 2014 constitution. Many experts as well as a Tunisian Member – who due to safety reasons wants to stay anonymous – characterise Saied’s action as am illegal "constitutional coup".
Later that year Saied put forward a new political roadmap for Tunisia, which included a proposed referendum on a new constitution. A draft of the new constitution was published in Tunisia’s official gazette on 30 June 2022 and later on complemented by 46 amendments, none of which checked the president's practically unlimited power. It outlined a full presidential system with the president having ultimate authority over the government and the judiciary. Under it, the government would answer to the president rather than to Parliament.
Despite the lack of a transparent process and the limited scope for adequate public debate during the drafting, the referendum on the proposed new constitution took place on the 25th of July 2022, which marks a year since President Saied suspended parliament and granted himself the exclusive right to rule by decree. Tunisia’s ISIE - the electoral commission controlled by President Kais Saied – declared that according to the preliminary results 95% voted yes in the constitutional referendum. However, only around a third of 9.3 million registered voters casted ballots. Despite the low turnout and with nearly 70% of eligible voters boycotting the referendum, the results are binding as there was no legal requirement of a minimum turnout for the referendum to be approved.
Accordingly, Democracy International’s Tunisian Member states that “being realistic, there is no political alternative to the current situation”, but hopes “to return to a democratic life in Tunisia”.
The constitution will effectively allow the president wide-ranging powers and risks the return of authoritarian rule in the birthplace of the Arab spring. Still, as seen since 2011 the Tunisian civil society has played a key role in paving the way to a democratic transition. Over the past years, civil movements have been instrumental in standing up to Saied in organising protests and boycotts in response to the democratic backsliding. Currently thousands of Tunisians protested against President Kais Saied, demanding a return to the democratic order. Even though in the current situation, it is hard to be optimistic about the future, we can hope that the Tunisian civil society is persistent in its fight for democracy and receive the freedom and dignity they demand and deserve.