Tunisia’s populist president promises elections next year

Kais Saied, Tunisia’s populist president, has said that parliamentary elections will be held at the end of next year, delaying any potential return to democracy as he tightens his control of the north African country.

The president, who has been ruling by decree since suspending parliament and the constitution in July, said the election would be preceded by a referendum on a new constitution. In a televised speech on Sunday night, he described the July coup as “correcting the path of the revolution and the path of history”.

Until Saied shut down parliament and suspended the constitution on July 25, Tunisia was seen as the only successful example of a democratic transition among those Arab countries that rose up against dictatorship in 2011.

The country’s democratic experiment, however, had come to be discredited in the eyes of many Tunisians because of political infighting and the failure of weak coalition governments to address deepening economic problems, rising poverty or the coronavirus pandemic. It last held an election in 2019.

The lengthy transition period “will be costly and Tunisia is on the verge of bankruptcy, I am not sure how he intends to finance this”, said Youssef Cherif, a political analyst who heads Columbia Global Centers in Tunis.

The president has yet to unveil an economic plan for the heavily indebted country and has mostly blamed corruption for the deteriorating economy. Tunisia is in talks about a loan with the IMF, but previous governments have found it difficult to implement reforms required by the lender to cap the public-sector wage bill and reduce subsidies.

Saied, who remains popular, said parliament would remain suspended until new elections on December 17 next year and before that, in July, there would be a referendum on a constitution drawn up by an appointed committee.

“There will be a popular consultation starting from the beginning of January through online platforms and questions, which we want to be clear and brief, will be formulated so the people can express their will,” said Saied, who has made no secret in the past that he opposed the parliamentary system and preferred a form of direct democracy that bypasses political parties.

“He clearly wants a constitution with a presidential system, and there is enough [support] for that within the population,” said Cherif who described the online consultation as “weird”. He added: “The opaque consultation . . . would lead to [a stronger president] anyway, but who will exercise the checks and balances? I worry that his constitution will establish authoritarian rule. Even if his intentions are noble, he does not take into consideration the future. He will not stay forever, and he is giving his successor the tools to turn Tunisia into a dictatorial state.”

The president on Sunday lambasted critics and political opponents as people who received funding from foreign countries or were out to secure personal gains. He called on the judiciary to try “all those who committed crimes against the Tunisian state and its people and who continue to do so” in remarks which appear aimed at the political class that governed during the past decade, including the moderately Islamist Nahda party — the largest faction in the suspended parliament.

He accused unnamed politicians of having robbed and impoverished the country. “I made the decision that had to be made, because I could not leave the country to beasts and raptors,” said Saied of his seizure of power in July.

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