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Tunisia sinks into autocratic rule as elections loom

  • Chaima Bouhlel

    Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

    زميل برنامج الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا - تشاتام هاوس

Many Tunisians fear the president’s new roadmap is effectively a coup signalling the return to autocratic rule as upcoming elections lack independent oversight.

The roadmap launched by President Kais Saied on 25 July – which suspended the legislature and gave the president extraordinary powers – was not based on dialogue with political actors or civil society and stipulated that Saied could oversee a referendum in August 2022 which has led to the adoption of a new constitution.

This was followed by the announcement of legislative elections to be held on 17 December and a new electoral decree. Apprehension around the electoral system was confirmed as fundamental changes were introduced with the blessings of the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE), which Kais Saied is using to legitimize his control over electoral processes.

As an independent body which became constitutionalized in the 2014 constitution, ISIE is a marker of the democratic transition in Tunisia for reasons which go beyond its symbolic replacement of the ministry of interior’s role in organizing elections prior to the 2011 revolution.

Building on a decade of success

ISIE has survived sudden changes in its composition prior to key electoral dates (such as the 2018 municipal elections) without a visible impact on its reputation or performance because it has built upon its success during the planning and organization of the constituent elections in 2011 and has instilled political and logistical processes in navigating electoral courses.

The ISIE led the discussions on revising the electoral law in three different elections – presidential, legislative, and municipal – with political parties and civil society organizations and has modelled electoral monitoring through partnerships with national and international actors. It also led discussions with key state actors involved in the electoral process, such as the administrative and financial courts, and The Independent High Authority for Audio-visual Communication (HAICA).

Despite there being criticism of potential bias by members of the ISIE council suggesting partisan influence, all election results since the revolution have been widely accepted by the competing parties and non-governmental organizations1

But since 2021, Saied has been using the ISIE to shield his decisions from international scrutiny, and this was clearly seen during the process of adopting the new constitution following the first referendum to be held since 2002 (when then president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali introduced constitutional changes to grant him endless rule).

The latest referendum is a key moment in consolidating Saied’s autocratic rule as it put an official end to the 2014 constitutional framework. The ISIE was maintained as the state structure organizing the referendum on the new constitutional text – the only constitutional authority preserved2 from the 2014 constitution.

Politicians and other interested parties have expressed concern over the absence of prerequisites for a fair and transparent electoral process, the lack of dialogue, and the deteriorating democratic environment, as well as technical and institutional aspects surrounding ISIE’s role in the referendum process.

ISIE’s legacy could not survive against these high tides of power usurpation and it has been plagued by the changes in how its council is composed – from one voted in by parliament to one named by the president.

This move was backed by the same arguments used by Saied to first freeze then suspend parliament, suggesting everything from the previous legislative body should be rewritten.

Changing the composition of the ISIE through decree was a continuation of what had already happened to the High Supreme Council, confirming Saied is prepared to unilaterally change the rules of the game even if they affect the pillars of Tunisia’s democratic transition – or perhaps especially so.

The new ISIE council, including three members from the previous council chosen by the president, immediately faced instability as one of the newly appointed members, Sami Ben Slama, denounced possible fraud in the voter registration process and other decisions made by the council regarding preparations for the referendum.

Ben Slama’s membership was revoked by the council and he is now facing charges in relation to his allegations. Despite disagreements within the council and the muffling of any criticism of the process from within, there was visible consensus on threatening the freedom of expression and political participation of those opposing the referendum. Even

ISIE members attacked both political actors publicly calling for a boycott and media institutions providing coverage of their activities, claiming such acts should be considered penal offences resulting in jail time.

Electoral law changed with no due process

Signs that the organization of the December legislative elections will be any different from the July referendum are non-existent. ISIE enabled Saied to amend the electoral law with no form of open participation by the public or organized political and civil structures. Although supporting parties, such as the People’s Movement (Harakat El Cha’ab), claimed they had submitted written suggestions to the president, only ISIE made the claim that a discussion on the draft electoral decree even took place between the institution and Saied, and that changes were made based on the former’s recommendations.

With such limited transparency surrounding the process, the scarce insight collected from the ISIE spokesperson suggests the recommendations were exclusively technical, suggesting that what was publicly framed as a form of participatory legislation was in fact a mere technical consultation.

The electoral law was criticized by political parties that were supporting Saied’s power grab (dubbed the “July 25 path/course”), on the basis of measures such as parrainage (collection of 400 signatures from voters as part of the candidacy requirements), the redefinition of the electoral districts, the suspension of public funding of electoral campaigns, and stripping partisan candidates from all indicators of their partisan identity. Some actors went as far as threatening to boycott the elections as they claimed that the changes made to the electoral law showed that Saied wants to create “his own state, people, and institutions”.3

Criticism gained momentum and went beyond the legal framework to also plague the role the ISIE was playing and its performance that was impacting the chances of success of certain candidates. The ISIE took liberty in making decisions that are visibly “legal” but that clearly impact the integrity of the electoral process. This includes   prolonging the candidacy period by three days on the initial final date (October 24), which led to disrespecting the electoral calendar initially published on September 24, 2022. Though ISIE claimed that the prolongation is to further encourage political participation, it still resulted in the absence of candidates in 10 electoral districts. ISIE also opened the possibility for changing the voter registration after candidacies were submitted, and though this excluded candidates and parrainage voters, this raised deep concerns on the impact this could have on election results.

Saied’s decision to maintain ISIE despite dissolving other non-executive institutions initially gave the impressionthat an electoral process would be organized through an independent body. But there is little doubt now that the independence of the ISIE is a mirage created by an illusion of formality used by Saied as his modus operandi.

As a popular Tunisian saying goes, what was given by one hand was taken by the other. And it is difficult to envision a different fate for any other institution to be maintained or created under Saied’s current autocratic rule.


[1] Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s first president since 2011, and a candidate in the 2014 elections, raised concerns regarding possible foul play in the 2014 presidential elections. (source)

[2] The 2014 constitution had envisioned five constitutional authorities, and the ISIE was the only one that was fully established (legal text and election of members). Two other authorities (Fighting Corruption and Audiovisual) were temporarily established in 2011, the former suspended by Saied, and the latter (HAICA) politically marginalized as witnessed in the electoral process.

[3] This was mentioned by Othman Belhaj Amor, secretary general of the Ba’ath Movement in Tunisia, in an interview in October 2022. (source)