75% of the Tunisian people boycott constitutional referendum which gives the presidency dictatorial powers as cost of living soars

UGTT members at a rally last year against the coup by president Kais Saied

OVER A DECADE since the death of the Tunisian fruit seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, after he set himself on fire over the viciousness of the state and rising food prices, the fate of the so-called Arab Spring in the country where it started hangs in the balance.

On Monday, three-quarters of the voting population refused to turn out for a referendum on a new constitution which gives the president dictatorial powers.

Tunisian President Kais Saied has initiated several political changes in the North African country: Sacking his prime minister, suspending parliament (which was dominated by the Islamic party Ennhadha), announcing rule by decree, and dissolving the Supreme Judicial Council.

His opponents have accused him of a coup, while the country deals with a deep economic crisis and food shortages. A $4bn deal with the IMF was made conditional on its acceptance by the trade unions, of which the UGTT is indisputably the most powerful.

The IMF deal includes a freeze on the public sector wage bill, progressive cuts to some subsidies, including food, and a restructuring (privatisation) of publicly owned companies.

The referendum was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the president’s seizure of power last July.

As he fired the country’s prime minister and suspended parliament, he claimed the move was justified after thousands of Tunisians took to the streets to protest over living conditions which were already in decline and got much worse during the pandemic.

Supporters of the president cheered his ousting of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and other government ministers, but those celebrations turned to clashes when those who opposed Saied’s moves also took to the streets to protest.

On 11 June this year, Tunisia’s powerful labour union reiterated its rejection of conditions proposed by the IMF for reforming the economy.

‘We will not accept the painful and harmful conditions imposed by IMF on our country,’ said Noureddine Taboubi, secretary-general of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT).

The UGTT, which has more than a million members, called for wage increases for state workers as inflation reached a record level of 7.5% in April, from 7.2 per cent in March and 7 per cent in February.

A national strike staged by the UGTT on June 16 signalled a strong mobilisation in the face of the government’s economic reform plan and President Kais Saied’s non-inclusive dialogue.

The UGTT, which has warned against ‘painful reforms’ aimed at pleasing the IMF, has demanded guarantees that state sector firms, including some monopolies, will remain publicly owned.

The general strike on 16 June saw over 96 per cent of public employees from 159 state institutions and public companies halting work nationwide.

The mass mobilisation protested the decision of Najla Bouden’s cabinet not to increase public wages and to propose spending cuts, as well as to add pressure on the president, who was taking steps to prepare his new constitution for the referendum on 25 July.

‘The message directed at the head of state was that the union is a main stakeholder, and nothing will happen unless it is included in the process,’ Tunisian economist Aram Belhadj commented.

The day before the strike, the UGTT stated that public workers would walk out ‘to defend their economic and social rights’ and denounced the deterioration of their living standards due to rampant inflation and declining purchasing power.

President Kais Saied on June 30 published the draft constitution giving broad powers to the head of state, marking a radical break with the existing parliamentary system. Saied says his changes have been necessary to rein in a corrupt political elite.

The presidentialisation of the regime stipulates that the ‘President of the Republic exercises executive power, assisted by a government led by a head of government’ whom he appoints.

This government will not be presented to parliament for a vote of confidence.

The president, according to the published draft, will also enjoy wide-ranging prerogatives: He is the supreme commander of the armed forces, defines the general policy of the state and approves laws. He can also submit legislation to parliament, ‘which must examine it as a matter of priority’.

In addition to significantly reducing the role and power of parliament, the text also provides for the establishment of a second chamber, the ‘National Assembly of Regions’.

The draft constitution also makes no mention of Islam as the ‘state religion’, as Sadok Belaïd, the lawyer who headed the committee responsible for drafting the text, had already announced.

Islamist-inspired parties such as Ennahdha are to be discouraged.

The draft constitution guarantees ‘individual and public rights and freedoms’ and states that men and women are ‘equal in rights and duties’. It further stipulates that the right to ‘peaceful assembly and demonstration is guaranteed’.

The director of the International Commission of Jurists, Said Benarbia, said that the draft constitution ‘flouts the idea of separation of powers’ and sets up ‘a presidential system without checks and balances with an omnipotent president, a powerless parliament and an inoffensive judiciary’.

Just a few hours before the referendum, hundreds of Tunisians were still on the streets to demonstrate against the draft text. Officials of the Islamic-inspired Ennahda party stood among protesters in Tunis on Saturday accusing president Kais Saied of a power grab since last year.

‘The most important message we want to convey is that the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tunisia continue to fight against the coup and against all those who want to roll back the revolution and democracy,’ said Ali Larayedh, Ennahdha party leader.

Opponents called for a boycott of last Monday’s referendum.

Around 9.3 million out of Tunisia’s 12 million people have opted in or been automatically registered to vote, according to the electoral commission.

Hundreds of Tunisians took to the streets of central Tunis late on Monday to celebrate the predicted result of the referendum vote, after an initial exit survey suggested the majority of voters had voted in favour of changing the country’s constitution.

They represent Tunisians who had grown exasperated with the country’s political elites and years of economic stagnation.

A large crowd marched down Tunis’ thoroughfare, waving national flags and blaring car horns. A couple of hundred people crowded onto the steps of Tunis Municipal Theatre to sing and chant popular slogans while cars circled Avenue Habib Bourguiba, which saw the final chapter of the 2011 uprising that overthrew the authoritarian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and began the Arab Spring.

President Kais Saied joined the crowd, greeting and thanking supporters. Saied addressed his supporters in the early hours of Tuesday morning after a walkabout and appeared sure that his constitution had been approved, referring to the referendum day as ‘an historic moment’.

An exit poll from Sigma Conseil, a Tunisian polling company, said 92.3 per cent of voters had backed the new constitution, with only 7.7 per cent voting ‘No’.

However, out of some nine million registered voters, just 1.9 million people came out to vote, with the opposition mainly choosing to boycott the vote.

No minimum level of participation was set for the referendum, so the constitution, which will change the country from its current hybrid parliamentary democracy to one where the president has sweeping powers, will be adopted.

Saied, who has been ruling by decree for a year, has already amassed significant power.

Said Benarbia, the director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the International Commission of Jurists, commented to Al Jazeera: ‘Under the proposed constitution, both the parliament and judiciary are subordinate to the executive and the president.

‘Their powers and competencies to act as a check on the executive were either weakened or removed altogether.’

The opposition now worries that violence against anti-referendum protesters before the vote, and court cases against opposition figures, such as Ennahdha leader Rachid Ghannouchi, are a sign of things to come.

The Arab Spring was an inspiration to youth defying austerity policies in the West, who now find themselves again in the forefront of rising prices and collapsing economies all over the globe.

The completion of the Arab Spring means completing the world socialist revolution in the advanced economies, to inspire Tunisian workers to establish their own workers’ government as part of the permanent revolution.