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Tunisia’s Constitutional Referendum Reverses Years of Democratic Progress

Frankie Berardi

Tunisia recently passed a constitutional referendum granting nearly unlimited power to President Kais Saied. Under the new constitution, significant authority is stripped from Parliament, limited judicial and administrative oversight restricts the president, and no procedure for removing the president exists. Because of President Saied’s expansive lawmaking power and direct control over the military, fears are also mounting that human rights will quickly be under attack.


Prior to 2011, Tunisia had a presidential system that operated as a de facto one party state. The executive branch of government also had significant influence over judicial decisions, hindering any guarantee of a ‘fair trial’ or media freedom. These powers effectively turned the President into a dictator. During this time, Tunisia suffered dramatic unemployment and corruption.


Following this political and economic turmoil, in late 2010 the Jasmine Revolution catalysed Tunisia’s fight for democracy. The ‘revolution’ began when Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest of police mistreatment. Bouazizi’s demonstration inspired protests throughout the country, which eventually forced autocratic president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to abdicate.


With Ben Ali removed, Tunisia replaced its presidential system with a mixed parliamentary-presidential system. Unlike the disproportionate executive power conferred by the former system, under this new system, Parliament would nominate the Prime Minister as the Head of Government. The President’s role became restricted to foreign affairs and defence.


The regime change in Tunisia inspired civil resistance campaigns in neighbouring countries, which became known as the Arab Spring. Yet, despite Tunisia’s success in improving human rights, the rest of the region failed to achieve similar results. Egypt suffered a coup; civil war overtook Libya, Yemen, and Syria; King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa violently suppressed pro-democracy movements in Bahrain.


While the Arab world largely fell into autocracy, Tunisia continued its fight for political, economic, and social freedom. Eventually, Tunisia adopted a new constitution in 2014 that was praised for compromising between Islamist and secular ideologies. By 2015, the Freedom in the World Report officially declared Tunisia a ‘free’ country.


By the end of the decade, Tunisia seemed to have emerged as the sole winner of the Arab Spring. Civic engagement improved, elections became more participatory, and human rights were a greater priority. According to Sarah Repucci, director of the Freedom in the World project, political leaders demonstrated willingness to compromise, and elections became ‘free and transparent.’ Civil society groups developed, leading to one particular group attaining the Nobel Peace Prize for establishing a framework for the peaceful transition of power. Freedom House indicated that the political system was ‘free of undue obstacles’ and political discussion was ‘open and free.’


In 2017, Parliament took further steps to advance civil rights by passing a law requiring an ‘equal number of men and women at the top’ of political party candidate lists. The same law also required at least one candidate to have a disability and three candidates to be under the age of 35. Tunisia also made history by passing its first national law to address violence against women. The law addressed not only physical violence but also economic, sexual, political, and psychological violence.


As of 2016, Tunisia was working towards campaign finance reform and establishing municipal councils to decentralise the government. Approaching the 2019 election, eleven women and one openly gay man sought nomination as candidates for President. Then, after the 2019 election, the 2014 Constitution proved enduring when Tunisia peacefully transferred power to its second President and second Parliament.


However, following Kais Saied’s 2019 electoral victory, the attrition of civil liberties began. Under the current Tunisian government, one of the most visible signs of autocracy is the suppression of media autonomy. Although Tunisia once had the ‘freest press in the Arab world,’ journalists now face harassment and imprisonment for criticising the government. Within the last year, two entire television stations were removed for critiquing the president, and state television refuses to feature opposition politicians.


This rapid reversal of democratic progress has culminated in President Saied’s decision to propose a new constitution – a process which has been shrouded in secrecy and fallen short of democratic ideals. The previous 2014 constitution took two years to draft and involved input from legal scholars, political experts, and civil activists. By contrast, the 2022 constitution was drafted in 4 weeks with little to no input from people outside President Saied’s inner political circle. Many nongovernmental organisations in Tunisia issued statements repudiating the new constitution, stating that it undermines many of the fundamental rights and civil liberties Tunisians had fought to obtain.


Despite nearly 95% of people voting in favour of the new constitution, only 30% of voters participated in the referendum vote, casting doubt over whether the vote adequately represents the public’s interests. The low voter participation is largely due to the Tunisian opposition alliance calling for a boycott on the ‘illegal, unconstitutional process.’ The reason for this claim is that the 2022 referendum contradicts the 2014 constitution, and participation in the former means supporting an illegitimate process.


The successful referendum vote returns Tunisia to a system of government in which the President assumes complete executive control, without the checks and balances required for a genuine democracy. The regression back to despotism should not only concern Tunisians but also the rest of the world. If a country once praised for being ‘the most egalitarian and democratic’ in Northern Africa can slip so far into authoritarianism, every democratic country should temper its pride before assuming the same cannot happen elsewhere.


Frankie Berardi is studying law at Charles Darwin University


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