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Tunisians vote for new constitution in low turnout referendum

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied has been celebrating his apparent victory in a referendum on a new constitution that gives him almost unlimited powers. He appeared in front of jubilant supporters after an exit poll indicated more than 90 percent of those who had voted had supported the president’s plan. The turnout was only 27.5 percent, with main opposition parties boycotting the poll.

Saied said turnout – announced by the country’s electoral commission – would have been higher if voting had taken place over two days. He promised that Tunisia would now enter a new phase after a decade of political deadlock.

The President’s opponents say his changes would just entrench the personal powers he seized a year ago. They also cite the low turnout as denying legitimacy to what they see as a worrying move back towards autocracy.

The date of the referendum was chosen by President Saied to mark a year to the day since his dramatic move to suspend parliament and dismiss the government. Since then, he has effectively ruled by decree.

The new constitution, which replaces one drafted in 2014 three years after the Arab Spring, would give the head of state full executive control, the supreme command of the army and the ability to appoint a government without parliamentary approval.

Saied claims that such changes are necessary to break a cycle of political paralysis and economic decay. He said his reforms were being done in the spirit of the 2011 revolution and will ensure a better future.

“Our money and our wealth are enormous, and our will is even greater, to rebuild a new Tunisia and a new republic, one that breaks with the past,” the president said after voting. He also hailed the referendum as the foundation of a new republic.

Decline in support for President

Although President Saied still has a core of support among Tunisians who believe the country needs a strong leader to address its problems, there seemed little enthusiasm for the referendum.

Saied’s initial moves against the parliament last year appeared massively popular with Tunisians, as thousands flooded the streets to support him, venting fury at the political parties they blamed for years of misgovernance and decline. However, as Tunisia’s economy worsened over the past year with little intervention by Saied, his support appeared to wane.

An opposition coalition including the Islamist Ennahda, the biggest party in the dissolved parliament, said Saied had “miserably failed to secure popular backing for his coup” and urged him to resign. The president’s opponents have also questioned the integrity of a vote conducted by an electoral commission whose board Saied replaced this year, and with fewer independent observers than for previous Tunisian elections.

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