Tunisians snub reform poll as economic crisis rages

Tunisian President Kais Saied, who seized power last year in what critics called a coup, has now asked voters for their political views – but days before online polls close, less than 6% had participated.

Most people in this tiny North African country are more concerned about food shortages, unemployment and financial hardship than buying into the process of rewriting the constitution.

The online questionnaire was launched in January, more than six months after Saied sacked the government, froze parliament and seized near-total power in a decisive blow against the country’s political elite.

The results are to be presented to a committee of experts – hand-picked by Saied – who will then draft a new constitution before a referendum in July, according to AFP.

But a few days before the gate closed on Sunday evening, only 412,000 people – less than 6% of the 7 million voters – had taken part.

“It is clear that there is a lack of interest in this consultation,” said analyst Hamza Meddeb. “The timing was not well thought out.”

Saied’s takeover in July abruptly suspended the mixed presidential-parliamentary system enshrined in Tunisia’s 2014 constitution, a hard-won compromise between rival ideological camps struck three years after a revolt toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisia has often been hailed abroad as the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings.

But many Tunisians have long been disillusioned with a political class seen as corrupt and incompetent, meaning Saied’s decision initially sparked an outpouring of support.

Meddeb believes that if the consultation had taken place immediately, participation could have been much higher.

But seven months later, he says, “the president has shown that he has no plan or program to improve the daily lives of Tunisians.”

In the streets of Tunis, few people seem interested in the exercise.

Saied “just wants to use the public to achieve his own goals,” said store owner Safia.

His colleague Hassen agreed.

“People are sinking into poverty and despair and Saied keeps telling us about the political regime,” he said. “We are really tired.”

Tunisia is locked in a severe economic crisis that began long before the coronavirus pandemic led to massive job losses and war in Ukraine threatened to exacerbate commodity shortages.

Years of high unemployment and inflation have left many families struggling to get by – and with little interest in high politics.

As the consultation draws to a close, stalls have appeared in Tunis encouraging citizens to do their “national duty” and fill in the form, which covers politics, economics, social issues, health and other questions.

Saied also ordered Prime Minister Najla Bouden to make internet access free for the last 10 days of the consultation which will end on March 20.

Sarra, a 32-year-old civil servant, said it was “good to try to gather people’s opinions and then put in place the necessary reforms”.

But many other Tunisians are skeptical.

“People are starving but all they care about is consultation,” one wrote online.

Some interviewed by AFP said they were not even aware of the exercise, despite an information campaign on national television, even on religious broadcasts.

“They should have picked us up on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter,” student Wajdi said.

Saied, accused by his rivals of wanting to bring back autocracy in Tunisia, has made no secret of wanting to install a more presidential regime.

The Ennahdha party and several other political blocs have called for a boycott of the consultation.

Free Destourian Party leader Abir Moussi also accused Saied of using state resources for his personal political project.

The exercise received little support from civil society groups.

Meddeb said the president had “not built a coalition” to carry out his project.

“Kais Saied no longer represents change, he is just busy opening new fronts” against his political rivals, he said.

“He moves forward alone, charts his course alone and decides the fate of the country alone.”

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