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Will Tunisia’s opposition unite against the July 25 referendum?

Some parties plan to boycott the vote on the new constitution, which aims to consolidate President Saied’s one-man rule.

Tunisians protest President Kais Saied and the constitutional referendum in Tunis on July 18. (Mohamed Messara/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Tunisia is gearing up for a referendum on a new constitution on July 25, the first anniversary of Kais Saied’s presidential coup. The constitution, released June 30 and slightly modified on July 8, would create an authoritarian, hyper-presidential system that will help Saied consolidate his one-man rule.

Most of Tunisia’s opposition parties are advocating a boycott of the referendum. They include Ennahda, Qalb Tounes, the Democratic Current, the Dignity Coalition and the Free Destourian Party (PDL) — the five largest parties in the parliament Saied dissolved. Yet a number of smaller parties, led by Afek Tounes, are instead campaigning to vote no.

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Globally, this choice of boycotting or voting no is a familiar dilemma to opposition parties in authoritarian regimes, but the jury is out on which strategy is more effective at democratization. Some quantitative analyses show that election boycotts can delegitimize a regime and hasten its defeat, particularly when those boycotts enjoy international support. But other studies suggest that boycotts rarely succeed and are more likely to undermine the opposition’s political influence.

This month, we conducted interviews in Tunisia with representatives from each of the major opposition parties to understand how they are reaching their decisions. Here’s what we found.

Why boycott the referendum?

The primary rationale for boycotting is to delegitimize the entire process — to signal both domestically and internationally that Tunisians reject not just the proposed constitution, but also the president’s coup last July. “This is an unconstitutional and illegitimate path,” noted Ghazi Chaouachi, secretary general of the Democratic Current. “If I vote, I will legitimize it. We refuse the whole path that does not correspond to international standards according to the Venice Commission.” [That’s a reference to a Council of Europe advisory body, composed of independent experts on constitutional law. In late May, the commission evaluated Tunisia’s preparations for the referendum as neither credible nor legitimate.]

Even though boycotting the referendum will all but ensure the new constitution passes, it will do so with extremely low turnout — 10 to 15 percent, estimates Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, leader of the National Salvation Front. The low turnout will then allow the opposition to pitch itself as the majority. As Chebbi argued: “I want to be with the 85 to 90 percent of the population who say: ‘This does not have my consent. This is a process that does not represent me.’ ” By lumping together the boycotters with the apathetic, this strategy could give the impression of a significantly larger opposition force than if they vote no.

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So why vote no?

The parties voting no instead argue that because the referendum does not require any minimum turnout to pass, the only way to defeat it is to outvote it. Fadhel Abdelkefi, president of Afek Tounes, is optimistic that the opposition can make that happen. “Kais Saied’s popularity is only virtual,” he claimed. “When Saied asks people to go to the street, he has just 1,000 people on Bourguiba Avenue. If the social democratic parties, plus PDL, Ennahda, etc. all went to the referendum and voted no,” he insisted, they could win.

However, even if Abdelkefi’s estimation is correct, the other parties respond that there is no guarantee that the outcome won’t be rigged, especially because Saied unilaterally changed the membership of the electoral commission. “We don’t have faith that it’s going to be a clean referendum,” noted Rached Ghannouchi, speaker of the dissolved parliament. Samira Chaouachi, the deputy speaker, agreed: “If Kais Saied lures us into his playground and we follow him there, we would certainly lose.”

Yet if the opposition boycotts the July 25 referendum, Saied would not have to rig the elections at all — his proposed constitution would pass on its own. Strategically, voting no might force him to engage in some electoral manipulation, allowing the opposition to then expose that to the world. “If he is doing such actions, we will also speak about it,” Abdelkefi vowed. “But the first step is you have to go [to the polls]. This is the only peaceful, democratic way to fight with President Kais Saied.”

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The opposition remains divided

Everyone interviewed acknowledged that the opposition’s inability to unite around one strategy will undercut the effectiveness of either approach. Many suggested that discussions are ongoing to coordinate a position, but time is quickly running out.

Some had hoped that civil society groups like the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) might have coordinated a pathway forward. Although the UGTT published an extensive criticism of the new constitution, it declined to take any official position on the referendum. That decision seems driven in part by internal divisions and, as University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill political scientist Ashley Anderson told us, the autonomy the labor union traditionally grants to local and regional offices to decide for themselves.

One obstacle to forming a united front is the uncertainty over what would happen if the no votes win. Would that mean a return to the 2014 constitution and the 2019 parliament, with Ennahda back as the largest party? Abdelkefi, leader of the no vote contingent, is trying to change that narrative. He noted, “This is the way pro-Kais Saied people are framing it: if it’s no to the referendum, it’s back to Ghannouchi in parliament. This is wrong. [The] 2014 [constitution] is finished. If the no vote wins, President Kais Saied has to resign. This is the minimum that political morals require.” Abdelkefi proposed that Prime Minister Najla Bouden would then become interim president for three months, conforming with Saied’s Decree 117, and would shepherd Tunisia to new presidential and parliamentary elections.

But Tunisia’s opposition parties have been unable to unite around this or an alternative road map. Until they do, Saied will continue to divide and rule the opposition and consolidate his political control.

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Sharan Grewal (@sh_grewal) is an assistant professor of government at William & Mary, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and a nonresident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

Ian DeHaven (@ciandehaven) is a summer fellow at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute.

Salah-Dean Satouri (@deansatouri) is a summer fellow at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute.

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