Low voter turnout may mar legitimacy of Tunisia constitutional referendum

Tunis, Jul 25 (EFE).- Voter turnout had marginally increased by early evening on Monday at the 11,000 polling places in Tunisia as the heat diminished, but there were no lines at the voting sites and little apparent enthusiasm among the voting public for the constitutional referendum under way, a sign of the undeniable indifference of most of the public.

Participation stood at 21.85 percent at 7:30 pm, two-and-a-half hours before the polls were due to close, that percentage being too modest – say many – for President Kais Saied to be able to claim true legitimacy for his controversial political effort, which has been criticized by jurists and boycotted by the political opposition.

Given the speed with which the referendum was organized – with the new prospective constitution being drafted in less than a month behind closed doors and made public only on June 30, then modified on July 8 – some were admitting to EFE on Monday that they had not even read the text but were convinced that approving it could “save” the nation.

This is also the motivation of the current president, who exactly a year ago decreed a state of emergency due to significant popular discontent with the governing class, and although his mandate is generating much expectation among his supporters there is a decisive lack of confidence in his governance among other political groups.

More than 9.2 Tunisians – just under 350,000 of them living abroad – were called to the polls on Monday to vote on the new constitution in what promised to be a long, hot day with the final participation percentage determining whether or not Saied and his political effort will be validated.

The voters heading to the polls on Monday, convinced that the “yes” option will win, are defending their votes for the new constitution saying that they are tired of the ruling class that took power after the 2011 revolution – part of the regional Arab Spring uprisings – that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

In 2021, the president unseated the government, suspended the parliament and decreed a state of emergency.

Saied, who took power in 2019, has justified his measures by saying they were taken to protect people’s freedom.

While the move saw him lose popularity, many Tunisians still believe in his project as the means to end the current political crisis.

“We have suffered during the past 10 years, a lot, and that has to change,” Rafik told EFE, adding that he went to his polling place with his wife Abir to try and achieve “a new Tunisia” that will offer “a better future for (our) children,” who came along with him.

The majority of the voters consulted by EFE, mainly older people during the morning and families and young people in the afternoon, said they were casting their ballots for the “New Republic” that Saied says he wants to build to rectify the failings of the revolutionary process.

“This isn’t a dictatorship because then it would be there until (Saied’s) death. He’s thinking about his successors, and so he’s made so many changes to the constitution. The parliamentary system doesn’t work, it hasn’t worked for 10 years,” Abir said.

The day has transpired calmly, with but a few minor incidents reported by observers such as the late opening of certain polling places and the rupturing of mandated electoral silence by Saied himself, who made remarks to the media after he cast his own ballot.

“We want to live in a free and sovereign country in which citizens are free and freedom is not only that of articles of laws or constitutions, but a true daily practice,” Saied said.

Thousands of national and international observers, including representatives from the Arab League, the African Union and the Carter Center organization, observed the balloting although their presence was less visible than in earlier votes, according to EFE’s determination.

“We’ve experienced during these sad recent years different farces and comedies, about articles of laws that they bought and sold and the blood that was spilled in Parliament and the texts that were published in the official state bulletin but were never implemented,” the president said Monday in justification of the referendum as part of his political plan.

If the current constitutional draft is approved, it would replace the 2014 Constitution, which was prepared by a constitutional assembly after two years of national dialogue on the matter.

Jurists have warned that its preparation and its content would introduce an ultra-presidential system, in contrast to the current semi-parliamentary one.

The polling places are scheduled to close at 10 pm and the first partial results of the vote will be released on Tuesday, although the determining factor will be extent of voter participation, which the president will try to use to defend his political roadmap and justify maintaining the state of emergency until the Dec. 17 legislative elections.

EFE lfp-nrm/fpa/bp

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