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Amid low turnout, Tunisia’s Saied wins vote for sweeping power

A handout picture provided by the Tunisian presidency press service shows President Kais Saied voting in a referendum on a draft constitution he put forward, at a polling station in the capital Tunis, on July 25, 2022. (Photo by AFP)

Voters in a referendum in Tunisia have overwhelmingly backed a new constitution giving President Kais Saied nearly total powers, but a boycott by opposition parties has overshadowed the plebiscite.

According to an exit poll, only a quarter of eligible voters participated in the vote which saw 92.3% of participants in the referendum support the new constitution.

With no minimum participation rate, however, the new constitution is now set to become law.

Critics of Saied, who ousted the elected parliament a year ago and moved to rule by decree, accuse him of a coup. Those measures will be formalized in the new constitution, eliminating what the country achieved in the wake of its 2011 revolution.

Under the new constitution, Saied will have power over both the government and judiciary while weakening the parliament.

The new charter would place the president in command of the army, allow him to appoint a government without parliamentary approval and make him virtually impossible to remove from office.

He could also present draft laws to parliament, which would be obliged to give them priority.

The new charter "gives the president almost all powers and dismantles any check on his rule and any institution that might exert any kind of control over him," said Said Benarbia, regional director of the International Commission of Jurists.

Saied defends his moves as necessary to save Tunisia from years of political paralysis and economic stagnation under a 2014 constitution that split power between the parliament and president.

His ouster of parliament was initially supported by many Tunisians, but with little progress in addressing dire economic problems, that support appears to have waned.

After voting on Monday, Saied said Tunisia faced a "historic choice”. 

On Tuesday, Tunisia's main opposition alliance accused his electoral board of falsifying turnout figures, saying his referendum on a new constitution had "failed". 

The electoral board, ISIE, said after polls closed that some 27.5 percent of the country's 9.3 million voters had cast ballots.

But Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, head of the National Salvation Front that includes Saied's main rivals, said the figures were "inflated and don't fit with what observers saw on the ground" across Tunisia.

ISIE "isn't honest and impartial, and its figures are fraudulent," he told journalists.

Chebbi said the only source of legitimacy for the Tunisian government was the 2014 constitution.

That document was a hard-won compromise between diverse political forces following the 2011 revolt that overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali three years earlier.

Chebbi said low turnout in the referendum showed "Kais Saied's coup d'etat has failed".

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