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Activists see the 25 July referendum as a key test for authoritarian rulers in economically troubled states such as Algeria, Egypt and Sudan
So far Kaïs Saïed's year of entrenching power in the presidency and the whittling away of the rights of parliament and other centres of oversight and scrutiny has been unhindered at home and abroad – save for an increasing number of street demonstrations.
President Saïed was helped by public frustration with months of political stalemate in the government and the parliament. Initially, he won strong support for promising to cut through partisan rivalries to revive the economy, create jobs and strengthen national sovereignty.
A year on from his suspension of parliament and assumption of absolute powers, Saïed has little to show for this slide back to authoritarianism of the Zine el Abidine Ben Ali era.
With the dinar depreciating 7% against the US dollar, a budget deficit nudging 10% of GDP and a financing gap of over US$1.5 billion, Saïed's government has opened talks with the IMF, seeking a $4bn loan.
The next critical test will come on 25 July when President Saïed puts his revised constitution to a referendum which could trigger the worst crisis since the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime in 2011, the beginning of the Jasmine Revolution.
Yet foreign powers have shown little interest in the authoritarian drift in Tunisia, previously held up as a bellwether for constitutional democracies in the region.
That could change now. In an open letter to be sent to the European Union's High Representative on Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, MEPs have urged him to help avert a 'crisis which threatens the stability of the country and the region.'
Opposition parties and civil society groups complain that Borrell's European External Action Service, the EU's diplomatic wing, has been missing in action – compared to its interventions during the 2013 crisis in Tunis. That is seen by many Tunisians as a tacit acceptance or support of President Saïed.
The European Commission has continued to provide substantial financial support to Saied's government, including extra funds to cover high wheat and grain prices.
By contrast, successive delegations from the European Parliament have been far more critical of the collapse of the rule of law and the increasing concentration of power in the hands of President Saïed.
Most of opposition parties, including the Islamist Ennahda party, are calling on Tunisians to boycott the referendum. They argue that the two-month online consultation exercise earlier this year was a sham since it did not include any consultation with President Saïed's opponents or civil society (Dispatches 24/1/22, President Saïed takes his new constitution campaign online).
The proposed constitution would entrench power in the hands of the presidency, giving the office sweeping powers to draft laws, impose exceptional measures and sack and appoint government ministers, judges and prime ministers (AC Vol 63 No 14, Saïed ratchets up the autocracy).
Part of the rationale behind Saïed's decision last July to suspend parliament and rule by decree was that a divided parliament had resulted in political paralysis, and that appears to be reflected in a divided approach to the referendum.
Some opposition parties, such as the liberal Afek Tounès, are calling to instruct their supporters to vote 'No' rather than simply boycott the poll. But the lack of coherence in the opposition strategy could still result in a credible turnout in the referendum.
Three small parties are campaigning for a 'Yes' vote. And Saïed's other tactics – his appointing of a new electoral commission, imposing heavier controls over the judiciary and jailing his opponents – could all help him produce the result he wants on 25 July.
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