Supporters of Tunisian President Kais Saied celebrate the victory of the 'yes' vote in a referendum on a new constitution, after the projected outcome was announced on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, July 26, 2022. (Photo by Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Tunisian Opposition Between Opportunity and Status Quo

Following Tunisia’s July 25 referendum on the new constitution pushed by President Kais Saied, serious concern was voiced by political and civic actors over the conduct and legitimacy of the voting process amid little trust regarding its transparency, suspicions of fraud, and accusations of ballot rigging. How likely the political opposition and civil society are to succeed in challenging the president’s path and slowing down the democratic backsliding is much uncertain.

Major political forces such as the National Salvation Front, the Islamist Ennahda movement, and five left-wing parties affiliated with a national anti-referendum campaign, rejected the results of the plebiscite and vowed to contest them pointing out that three-quarters of the eligible voters stayed away from the polls. Civil society organizations demanded the state’s electoral authority (ISIE)—which was placed under the president’s control last April—to publish polling station data, and some even asked for a recount.

Opposition parties like Afek Tounes and Echaab Yourid and anti-corruption watchdog I-Watch filed lawsuits against the referendum results, denouncing ISIE’s errors in calculating the votes and lack of transparency and integrity before, during, and after the vote. Since most parties did not participate in the referendum, they were denied the chance to appeal. The National Salvation Front went one step further claiming that Saied “falsified the popular will by falsifying the results.”

According to ISIE figures, 94.6 percent of those who took part in the July 25 vote voted “yes” to the constitution, but with only 30.5 percent of the 9.2 million registered voters turning up at the ballot box, and without minimum participation rate set.

The low turnout—the lowest number of Tunisians to participate in a poll since the country’s 2011 revolution—came in the midst of a boycott campaign from most of Saied’s adversaries who say the new constitution may lead Tunisia back to autocracy after changing the political system from its current parliamentary democracy to one where the chief of state has extended powers.

Prior to the adoption of the controversial constitution, taken as a fait accompli by both supporters and opponents of the president, strong critique was already surrounding it, as legal experts and members of parties and civil society groups denounced a lack of legal basis and exclusion of real participation or public debate. Yet, regardless of the weak turnout and despite that political parties are continuing to challenge the legitimacy of both the referendum and the new text, the “yes” vote overwhelmingly won at the polls and the constitution came into effect after the final results of the vote was announced by the election commission.

Saied, who has long promised to change the voting system, will expectedly go ahead with pushing through a new electoral law that replaces party lists with individual candidates. Although his constitution says little about how the system through which the two chambers will be elected and operate, the head of state will be the one to set the rules since the new constitution grants him the power to continue ruling by decree until parliamentary elections are held on December 17.

The majority of opposition parties and civil society groups, in spite of their great potential to mobilize, led a fierce boycott against the president’s new constitution rather than calling voters to fight it at the ballot box, thus failing to unite around a “no” campaign.

Far from an opposition front, there are several factionalized, divided resistance forces that neither have the ability to mobilize large numbers, nor they appear willing to unite beyond their ideological differences in order to counter Saied’s political plan. These are the National Salvation Front (including Ennahda), the old regime-inspired Free Destourian Party, the centrist parties, the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), and some civil society associations.

“Since the declaration of the state of exception on July 25, 2021, and still now after the referendum, the opposition’s impact in contrasting Kais Saied’s policies has been relatively weak,” Aymen Zaghdoudi, professor assistant of public law at the Institute of Press and Information Sciences in Tunis, told TIMEP. He pointed to three factors hindering defiance from those factions: they are divided instead of forming a compact coalition; they are “not acting on the ground,” which further undermines their credibility at a time of very low public trust in the post-2011 political class; and they are not engaging a “permanent dialogue” with the labor union on the necessary economic and social reforms, thus causing constant tensions in the political field.

In his view, a national dialogue amongst the different political forces and the civil society, led by the UGTT or a trusted national organization, should be centered on reaching an agreement on the passing of needed economic and social reforms, and changing the electoral law to ensure political stability.

Nessryne Jelalia, a Tunisian feminist activist and former head of Al Bawsala, a non-governmental organization that monitors parliamentary decisions, similarly noted that the non-influential, little responsive opposition camp that came out after Saied’s power grab has not changed, even following the referendum. “It’s feeble, badly organized, and reacting too late,” the activist commented to TIMEP. “There’s so much resentment against the political elites that ruled over the past decade, and even key civic stakeholders have been unable to come together in the face of today’s autocratic drift,” she added, observing a drop in credibility and mobilization power on the part of the civil society.

Either these divided groups join forces and compromise to decelerate the de-democratization process the Tunisian leader started last summer, when he sacked the government and froze parliament, or they keep existing in a fragmented fashion within the much polarized landscape that emerged in Saied’s year of power consolidation.

“In the current situation, the opposition doesn’t stand a chance to be a real alternative,” Zaghdoudi argued raising doubts on whether Saied’s rivals will take part in the legislative elections in December, having boycotted July’s referendum, or if they would earn enough seats in the next parliament to challenge the president’s actions. In a tweet posted the day after the plebiscite, the scholar wrote: “It is very difficult to go back to the democratic path without real and credible political alternatives. [Kais Saied] will move to amend the electoral law and other laws to ensure a majority at the next Parliament.”

Jelalia believes the socioeconomic dossier could be a real “catalyst” to lead the various oppositions in the Tunisian street to form a strong front and organize, and it wouldn’t necessarily be the formal opposition structures to mobilize the street. Indeed, in the one-year since Saied has centralized power in his hands, he hasn’t taken concrete steps to tackle the country’s disastrous economic situation, with inflation edging up to 8.2 percent, and the unemployment rate reaching 15.5 percent, compounded by an imminent food crisis.

How Tunisia will address its deepening crisis remains the question as the government is still negotiating with the International Monetary Fund on a multi-billion-dollar loan agreement that would likely require widely unpopular austerity measures. Though the UGTT may have less power under an ultra-presidential system to obtain concessions, the union still has capability to play a key opposition role after the referendum. It may try to at least reduce the reform conditions required to get the new deal.

Exhausted by the long-protracted economic hardship, those same Tunisians who are putting trust in Saied could withdraw their backing to the president if they do not see change in their lives. The victory of the “yes” vote should not be treated as a blank cheque to Saied who, instead, should keep in mind the low turnout signaling a rift in his popular support base and the increased hostility from multiple sides in Tunisian society, including from those who initially supported his moves.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist specializing in the Middle East and North Africa.