A year after Tunisian President Kais Saied began a series of moves that expanded presidential powers, a new constitution further empowering the presidency has been approved by referendum. Amid a dire economic crisis, many Tunisians expressed support for Saied’s moves, as the promise of the 2011 uprising evaporated over the last decade. While the referendum passed with 94 percent of the vote, only 30 percent of Tunisians participated. Once heralded as the sole democratic success of the Arab uprisings, Tunisia’s democratic future trajectory is more uncertain than ever following the constitutional referendum.
USIP’s Elie Abouaoun, Thomas Hill and Leo Siebert explain how the new constitution changes Tunisia’s political system, why turnout was so low, the implications for the country’s economic crisis and how Tunisian democracy advocates and their supporters can slow democratic backsliding.
How would the proposed constitution change Tunisia’s political system?
Tunisia’s new constitution removes many of the checks and balances of the 2014 constitution and firmly centralizes power in the hands of the president. In the new system, the president unilaterally appoints the prime minister and the cabinet. The legislative branch is weakened and divided into two bodies. The judiciary is reduced to an administrative function of the executive branch under the control of the president. The president cannot be impeached.
Saied’s supporters believe a strong presidency is needed to simplify governance and enable decisive leadership to meet the demands of the public and steer Tunisia’s through its deep, protracted economic crisis. Opponents believe the new constitution may result in a return to an autocratic regime.
Finally, the new constitution obscures the secular nature of the state. Tunisia is now characterized as part of the Islamic Ummah (nation/community) and the constitution stipulates that the state shall work to achieve the objectives (maqāsid) of pure Islam.
Polls have shown that many Tunisians want a strong leader and effective government no matter the form it takes. So why did so many Tunisians boycott the vote?
Like in many other countries, the transition to a parliamentary democracy created an expectation that Tunisia’s economic performance would improve. However, post-2011 governments were unable to take the bold actions needed to address failing post-independence economic policies. Instead they continued to turn to the IMF to fund public spending as internal economic output shrunk, expanding dependence on an unsustainable debt trap. As living conditions deteriorated after 2011, a majority of Tunisians felt that the checks and balances in their democracy were contributing to protracted economic hardship justifying the need for a strong leader who would not be hindered by the parliament.
The same sweeping anti-establishment sentiment that allowed Saied to win the 2019 elections continues to shape the electoral behavior of the average citizen. The loss of credibility of the post-2011 political parties goes beyond names and personalities: it is mostly about a trust deficit in the political process itself. This trust deficit has led a majority of Tunisians to support the exceptional measures Saied took in July 2021, believing he cannot do any worse than the democratically elected governments of the last decade, while others fear that these measures reverse the democratic gains since 2011 and will only further decay Tunisia’s institutions and the few rights and freedoms that Tunisians now enjoy. The opposition to the president’s roadmap intensified when he began dismantling Tunisia’s constitutional institutions by decree and consolidating power within the presidency. This led to calls from major civil society groups and large political parties to boycott the referendum due to its lack of credibility and a lack of trust in the election commission now firmly under the control of the president. Those urging a boycott believe that low turnout undermines the referendum’s credibility and hinders the president’s mandate to implement the new constitution and political system.
While there was also a counterargument among some parties and activists urging the public to participate through a negative vote rather than boycotting, the majority of the president’s opponents preferred the boycott option. Initial results after the referendum suggest that only 30 percent or so of eligible voters participated.
Exit polls suggest that more than 94 percent of those who participated voted in favor of the new constitution. Those who boycotted now point to the low turnout as justification that their strategy was successful in delegitimizing the president. Those who voted no are exasperated, arguing that if those who actively boycotted had instead voted no, they may have beaten the yes vote or at least come close enough to demonstrate that the majority of the public do not support the new constitution. In either case, with turnout at roughly 30 percent, the new republic is being constructed on unstable ground.
How will the referendum’s passage impact Tunisia’s ability to address its economic crisis and seek relief from international financial institutions?
Tunisia’s economic crisis began before the 2011 revolution and was a major contributing factor to the uprising that ousted President Ben Ali. Since then, the economy has shrunk dramatically while subsequent governments were unable to address the underlying structural problems, cronyism and weak rule of law that created situation. Over the last decade, Tunisia’s economy has crumbled further and dependency on international financial institutions to prop up the economy has only grown.
By 2020, an already weak economy was pushed to the brink of collapse by the global pandemic. Tunisia is now struggling to recover amid rampant inflation, currency depreciation, rising poverty, increasing energy costs and a shrinking middle class. If Tunisia does not secure external loans, it is likely to default within the year. The IMF seems to be the most likely lender. However, the ongoing negotiations for a $4 billion loan require harsh conditionality like freezing public sector wages, laying off public sector employees and reducing subsidies on essentials like food and energy. As the purchasing power of Tunisians has been declining rapidly and poverty increases, there is broad opposition to the IMF’s austerity measures as they would wreak economic havoc on a fragile population and further weaken the state’s ability to stimulate growth.
However, an IMF package seems to be the only viable option in the short term to prevent default. So, it becomes a question of how well the government can negotiate terms and mitigate damage in the near term. In the long term, Tunisia must break out of its debt trap. And many are pinning their hopes on Saied to deliver where previous governments have failed.
Changing the constitution and political system will not fix Tunisia’s deep and complex economic problems. But the president has argued that strong centralized leadership is necessary to avoid the political gridlock of the post-revolution period and put the country back on track. Either way, it’s an uphill battle with stiff headwinds.
For economic reforms to create broader prosperity, Tunisia must rein in crony capitalism, develop marginalized interior regions, improve education, align skills with the job market, reform the administrative and legal hurdles for more equitable economic opportunity, increase food and energy sovereignty, and build the physical infrastructure needed for increased economic output. It is unlikely that this can be achieved quickly, and Tunisia is not immune to the macro conditions affecting global trade and finance. Globally, recession seems likely, and this will further compound economic challenges and exacerbate social and political tensions. Already, the impact of the war in Ukraine has brought Tunisia further to the brink of default with the government unable to pay the rapidly increasing prices for imported basic commodities. It remains to be seen if one-man rule can better address these challenges.
Can Tunisia’s political and civil society movements form a united front?
The absence of a viable alternative to the president’s project is unlikely to be filled in the short term. The parties opposing the president are unable to mobilize effectively in the current political environment due to a lack of credibility and ability to speak convincingly to the general public. Secondly, not all political parties are opposed to the president. Some hope to eventually become a part of his new system and benefit from it, similar to the Ben Ali system. Thirdly, those labeled as the “democratic opposition” are unwilling to join forces with the largest centers of resistance (who themselves are diametrically opposed to one another), the Muslim Democrat Ennahda party and the Free Destourian Party of Ben Ali regime figure Abir Moussi. Until these deep divides are overcome, the currently factionalized centers of opposition are unlikely to succeed.
Historically, as pressure on opposition parties increases, their ability to compromise and collaborate deteriorates. This is yet another reason that a unified front is unlikely. Thus far in Tunisia, it is only after elections, when multi-party governance becomes necessary, that parties have been able to form coalitions. And these coalitions have lacked the support of their electoral bases. Under the president’s new system, many anticipate that traditional parties will find it increasingly difficult to organize and campaign as freely as they did in the post-2011 period.
In civil society, the picture is not much rosier. Activists have been unable to unify against the president’s consolidation of power due to internal divisions, a lack of alternative solutions and a fear that ousting the president could plunge the country into unpredictable political and security turmoil amid an escalating economic crisis. However, in the absence of an inclusive political process, it is only a matter of time before opposition to the president escalates and unity among organizations increases.
There is also broad speculation that Saied will seek to muzzle the influence and space of civil society by restricting funding and, potentially, ramping up prosecutions and intimidation of activists. So, the extent to which the president uses repressive tactics will be a major factor in how civil society organizes and acts.
Where do Tunisian democracy advocates go from here? Can the United States help safeguard Tunisia’s democracy from further backsliding?
It’s premature at this point to proclaim an end to Tunisia’s democratic project. To be sure, there has been tremendous backsliding over the past year but it’s not irreversible. As the economy continues to struggle and grave socio-economic issues persist, the president’s popularity is expected to decrease overtime. As this occurs, political activists will have to organize themselves into a coherent opposition bloc capable of articulating an alternative vision for the country — a vision that addresses the issues that matter most to the Tunisian street. Specifically, this alternate vision should offer real solutions to the country’s dire economic predicament, something Saied has not done thus far. Groups that have traditionally not been allied will need to find common ground. The extent to which they are able to coalesce and achieve success at the ballot box will be shaped heavily by forthcoming presidential decrees outlining the nature and shape of the newly bicameral legislature and the electoral laws governing parliamentary and presidential elections.
As for the United States and other governments, any opposition to power consolidation and potential democratic backsliding must be organic and Tunisian-led. Western capitals can’t want democracy more than the Tunisian people. That being said, the United States can lend rhetorical and financial support to Tunisia’s democracy activists and use its leverage within international financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank to encourage the president to respect rights and freedoms and strengthen rule of law. Lastly, now that the Independent High Authority for Elections is under the control of the executive authority, the United States and others should insist that international observers be allowed unfettered access to all election preparations and the administration thereof.
To help maintain stability, the United States can continue to prioritize assistance that improves participatory governance, economic opportunity, bridges deepening societal cleavages, strengthens rule of law and protects the rights of all citizens.