By Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall
TUNIS (Reuters) – As Tunisia’s president prepares to rewrite the constitution after dismissing parliament last year and ruling by decree, he has called for citizens’ input by setting up a voluntary multiple-choice questionnaire online.
With two weeks to go before the survey is due to end, only 276,000 people have taken part in the country of 12 million, according to the survey website, amid accusations by Kais Saied’s critics that the consultation is a charade.
After his move against the elected parliament last summer, the 64-year-old announced in December he would appoint a committee to rewrite the constitution with input from the people and put it to a referendum in June.
He says his intervention was a response to a decade of political and economic stagnation at the hands of a corrupt, self-serving elite.
“The future of Tunisia is in the hands of Tunisians and it is their intensive participation that will pave the way towards a new stage in the history of Tunisia based on the real popular will and not on fake legitimacy,” Saied said in January.
His critics decry the president’s actions as a coup that has imperilled democracy won in a 2011 revolution that sparked “Arab Spring” uprisings across the Middle East.
They say the public consultation on the constitution is designed to create a veneer of inclusiveness while Saied imposes his own preferred political system, the latest step in a march towards near total power.
“I think Tunisia is going to one-man politics, so I’m not enthusiastic about any participation in the consultation,” said Karim Saqaa, a law student in the capital Tunis.
Many political parties and the powerful UGTT labour union have also denounced the plan, and some said that Saied, who was a constitutional law professor before taking up politics, appeared to be prejudging the results of the survey.
In January he said it was already apparent from the results so far that people wanted a presidential system.
His opponents – and Tunisia’s main foreign donors – say any truly inclusive process should involve all of the country’s main political players.
2014 CONSTITUTION HAILED AS TRIUMPH
The 2014 constitution, which Saied intends to replace, was hailed at the time as a triumph of compromise between rival factions that helped avert a period of dangerous polarisation.
When it was agreed, rival parliamentarians embraced, weeping on the floor of the now-suspended chamber.
But the mixed parliamentary and presidential system it introduced was prone to paralysis, and squabbling politicians failed to set up a constitutional court that would have resolved disputes.
When Saied won a landslide presidential election second round in 2019, the result was seen by many voters as a repudiation of Tunisia’s entire political class.
On a recent cold, rainy day near Tunis university, a group of pro-Saied volunteers set up a stall on a cafe balcony with banners and a loudspeaker to encourage people to enrol for the questionnaire.
Reuters journalists who were there for an hour saw only a few people sign up.
“We volunteered because for once in Tunisia’s history, people are being directly consulted on vital issues and are no longer being brought down by a political elite,” said Ahmed Kouki, handing out fliers to promote the consultation.
One question in the survey asks whether a presidential, parliamentary or mixed political system is best.
Another asks whether the government should prioritise electoral or constitutional reform, or leave things as they are. Other questions address economic and social issues.
“Tunisia, security, sovereignty, freedom” read one of the banners hanging outside Kouki’s stall at the cafe.
Regional governors, state officials, university authorities and publicly owned companies have tried to promote the consultation with a publicity campaign.
While the Minister for Youth blamed the low turnout on technical problems and poor internet penetration, Saied accused counter-revolutionaries of trying to torpedo the process.
On Tuesday he suggested offering people free internet access as a way of boosting the participation rate.
For many Tunisians, Saied’s constitutional tinkering seems divorced from their daily reality of low employment, rising prices and shortages of some goods, as a crisis in public finances looms.
In response to his internet offer, some people wrote on the presidency’s social media feed saying they were online, but needed bread.
“The president should focus on the economy, on providing jobs. But nothing has changed,” said Ashraf, 25, a supermarket worker sitting in the cafe behind the volunteers.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Mike Collett-White)