TUNIS: President Kais Saied has been steadily consolidating his grip over Tunisia since seizing broad powers a year ago.
As he puts a new constitution to a referendum on Monday, critics believe it will formalise what they see as a march to one-man rule that has trashed the democratic gains set in train by the 2011 revolution.
Saied says he aims to save a country that was mired in political paralysis and economic malaise, by remaking its governing system and overhauling the 2014 constitution.
Here are the ways he has tightened his grip, starting from July 25, 2021, when he froze parliament and fired the prime minister.
Saied invoked Article 80 of the constitution to fire Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi. Parliament speaker Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist Ennahda party, said he had not been consulted on the move, as required.
Two months later, Saied appointed a new government under Najla Bouden but without seeking the parliamentary backing required under the constitution.
The moves undermined parliament’s central role in cabinet formation, enshrined in the 2014 constitution.
Bouden has said little in public, and critics say her ministers appear to have been selected largely by Saied, who has also decreed that they answer to him, not the prime minister.
After freezing parliament, Saied said there would be “no going back”, ordered the military to surround parliament, and removed lawmakers’ pay and immunity.
Legal experts said the move had no constitutional basis.
Since then, a military court has jailed several lawmakers on charges of assaulting police.
In March a majority of lawmakers defied Saied by holding an online session rejecting all his moves. He then dismissed the parliament – another move legal experts said had no constitutional basis – and demanded investigations into members who had joined the online meeting, accusing them of a coup.
He has said he wants elections to a new parliament before the end of the year.
Two months after his intervention, Saied issued a string of decrees brushing aside most of the 2014 constitution and giving himself the power to rule by decree – a move which he said was constitutionally valid but which legal scholars have contested.
Saied held an online multiple-choice consultation over what Tunisians wanted for their political system, but few took part. Critics described the survey as slanted to achieve the results he sought.
He appointed a panel to write a new constitution that he said would be partly based on the results of that survey.
But he rewrote the version they submitted to him, according to the panel’s members, and published the draft less than a month ago – giving Tunisians little time to absorb his proposed changes before Monday’s referendum.
The referendum rules do not set any minimum level of participation, meaning even a very small turnout could allow Saied to impose the new constitution.
Saied voiced annoyance with the judiciary as his repeated efforts to bring corruption charges against prominent politicians and businessmen stalled in court, and as top judges questioned the legitimacy of his constitutional changes.
In March he replaced the Supreme Judicial Council – an independent body that appoints or dismisses judges – and in June he fired 57 judges, including the former head of the council.
Since the 2011 revolution, Tunisia’s handling of elections has won international praise as broadly free and fair.
However, in April Saied replaced the independent electoral commission with members chosen by himself, a move widely seen as undermining the integrity of future votes.
He also decreed changes to the voting system, saying parliamentary elections would take place in two rounds instead of one and with voters picking individuals rather than lists, thereby weakening political parties by making it harder for voters to identify their candidates.
Saied has replaced numerous public officials at all levels of the state over the past 12 months in a shake-up that analysts say has aimed to remove people linked to Ennahda.
Senior security officials, regional and local governors and civil bureaucrats have all been replaced with Saied’s own preferred candidates.