The supporters of the authoritarian Tunisian president defend his Constitution: “What good is democracy if a country is poor?” | International
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On a harsh summer day, with thermometers touching 40 degrees in much of Tunisia, few queues were registered at polling stations on Monday to participate in the referendum on the new Constitution sponsored by Tunisian President Kais Said. Instead, the beaches were packed on the last day of the bridge dedicated to the Fiesta de la República. With the majority of the opposition boycotting the consultation considering that it will only serve to cement Said’s authoritarian path, the approval of the new Basic Law is assured. However, its legitimacy will depend above all on the rate of participation.
A part of the voters seems more motivated to vote against the traditional political class, and above all against the Ennahda Islamist movement, than to support President Said. “The president has made him regular, but the important thing is that he does not return to power Ennahda. They are terrorists”, snaps Sonia, a middle-aged lawyer in reference to the clause that grants the State a certain monopoly of religion to the detriment of the parties. “I do not believe that this Constitution will lead the country to a dictatorship, as the opposition says. Now, the main thing is peace and security. What good is democracy if a country is poor?”, she asserts.
“Although Ennahda had fewer ministers than some minor parties after 2014, it is seen as largely responsible for the poor economic performance of the last 10 years,” says Seifeddine Ferjani, an analyst critical of Said who stresses that control of the media by part of the president and the disinformation campaigns help explain the existing polarization among public opinion. “There has been no real debate before the referendum. People have been told that the Constitution will bring good things, that it will free us from traitors and mercenaries, but it is not explained how by itself it will put an end to the economic crisis”, adds Ferjani.
Said, a 64-year-old independent politician elected president in 2019, arrogated full powers to himself exactly a year ago, threatening the continuity of the Tunisian democratic experiment, the only one to emerge from the Arab Springs. The president has justified his “exceptional measures” in the need to rid the country of the “corrupt” political class that has governed it during the last ten years of transition.
Only a small group of opposition parties have called for the No in the referendum, so it is difficult to find voters against the new Magna Carta. “I hope that this new Constitution is transitional, because I fear that it is leading us towards a dictatorship. I was in favor of the measures of July 25 of last year, a change was necessary. But not like this, it cannot be that the president monopolizes all the power and is not accountable to anyone. So he hasn’t been my choice,” says Walid, a development consultant.
According to Farouk Bouaskar, president of the ISIE (the Electoral Board), only 27.5% of the voters registered in the census, that is, almost 2.5 million people, had voted by 10:00 p.m. To stimulate participation, this time the authorities have extended the usual time slot for opening schools, which was from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. The results of the vote of Tunisians residing abroad point to a low turnout, since it was around only 6% at the end of the second of the three voting days. In the last legislative, it was close to 20%. ISIE is expected to announce the final results on Tuesday afternoon.
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One aspect that has not changed in this referendum regarding the presidential or legislative elections is the low influx of young people in schools. Aida, a 20-year-old who works as an administrative worker, is an exception. “The last ten years have been catastrophic. We need a change. We do not want Parliament to return [disuelto por Said]”, he explains next to his mother at the Abd Rahman Bin Mami primary school, in the Marsa suburb of the capital. Although he claims to have read the draft Constitution, he is not able to specify what positive aspects it brings with respect to the previous one, approved in 2014, in full democratic transition.
According to experts, the hard core of Said’s followers is found among the popular classes, concerned about famine. “The president is a simple and God-fearing man. He thinks of the people, not like politicians, who just want to occupy the easy chair,” says Mohamed Fawzi, a humble 64-year-old retiree wearing a faded cap. “With the same money that you used to fill the shopping basket, now you can’t even buy a kilo of meat. Things have not improved much in a year, but patience is required”, he adds before getting on his bike and saying goodbye: “I’m going to take a bath, it’s very hot!”. The beach seems to be the only meeting point for a society divided by President Said’s personalist political project.
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