Creating new perspectives since 2009

The magic word in Tunisia is vigilance

March 24, 2014 at 4:29 pm

As we stand on the verge of the National Constituent Assembly’s vote on the constitution, which is expected to get the required two-thirds majority to pass its first reading, we are heading towards overcoming the political crisis in Tunisia slowly and moving towards safety, thus avoiding the dark fate of the other Arab Spring revolutions. There is a large gap between Egypt and Tunisia: the former saw a vote of over 90 per cent on a constitution prepared by a committee, appointed by a coup government, by means of a referendum boycotted by the opposition, and while those voting “no” were not allowed to voice their opinions. Tunisia, on the other hand, voted by means of an elected assembly on a constitution that represents the various groups in the country, which led to spontaneous praise from well-known international newspapers such as the Washington Post, New York Times and Le Monde. However, the journey is not over yet, and will not be over until the elections are over.

If the assembly passes the constitution by a two-thirds majority and we avoid a referendum, then the only duties left are determining the mechanisms of the elections, especially whether to separate the presidential and legislative votes or hold them concurrently, and then setting the basic electoral law. That will provide enough information for the Independent Electoral High Commission to set the date(s) for the election(s).

The other matter that remains before finalising the constitution and which continues to irk politicians is how to deal institutionally with the future government that will consist of technocrats. The “road map” on which the “national dialogue” between the political parties was based, and which was formulated originally by professional organisations, such as the Tunisian General Labour Union and the Tunisian Businessmen’s Union, included a clause regarding the reinforcement of “protection” for the new government and avoiding any shocks to it. Moreover, the clause provided for the support of the new government’s stability by making it difficult for the legislative council, that is, the Constituent Assembly, to withdraw its confidence from the government, by requiring a two-thirds vote rather than a half plus one vote as before. Furthermore, the transitional conditions of the approved constitution include a clause providing for the withdrawal of legislative initiatives from the assembly members, except for those related to the basic laws (including the electoral law), which imposes clear restriction on the assembly’s intervention in the government’s work.

The revision of the law governing local authorities by means of amending chapter 19 and changing the formula for withdrawing its confidence by the legislative council, again, the Constituent Assembly, by requiring a two-thirds majority vote rather than a half plus one vote will put the government and the executive branch above all. This is especially true because there was an agreement, originally, preventing the Constituent Assembly from legislative initiatives as soon as the constitution was voted on. Withdrawal of confidence by means of a two-thirds vote and the prevention of the Constituent Assembly’s legislative initiative effectively means that the assembly’s monitoring of the government would be without any real power and will put us in a state of institutional imbalance. Facilitating the government’s extraordinary work, especially during a short transitional period, is understandable and the prevention of legislative initiative is enough to fulfil this. This focus on the two-thirds vote is quite suspect for two main reasons: first, because it puts partisan interests above the greater interests, and those defending it today had attacked it when it was first discussed in the first troika government ( December 2011 ), as there was no desire at the time to “facilitate” its work. Second, most of those who are calling for the vote and consider it the cornerstone of the next phase have already called publicly for the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, especially in August and September. This is also cited by the withdrawal of the assembly’s legislative initiative, which would practically be dissolving it.

In comparative experiences, it is rare to find a two-thirds majority vote for the withdrawal of confidence from the government, even in parliamentary democracies. This is understandable in order to keep any government in a permanent state of alert with regards to the approach of an authority comparable to the central institution in senatorial or parliamentary systems or any quasi-parliamentary governments, such as the legislative council. This is true for regular partisan coalition governments and stable democracies. We are now a few years away from the reign of tyranny and “independent” governments, or technocratic governments that do not have a binding political reference or partisan organisation that imposes the rules of an institutional game.

Due to the fragility of the transitional phase, the preservation of the only legitimate institution expressing the electoral will must be considered an essential issue to the conduct of the new elections. The opposition has launched a successful campaign to convince public opinion that there is a negative relationship between the success of the upcoming elections and the existence of a partisan coalition government. Although the Independent Electoral High Commission alone has the tools to conduct elections and not the government (through the Ministry of the Interior), as was the case in the past, and although the most important state branches, especially on a local level, were the ones appointed during the reign of tyranny and not after (they even have a union to defend them and are against the new appointments), the opposition forces have continued for over a year to repeat the argument that it is impossible to organise elections with a partisan coalition government.

The context of the coup is supported by the local Arab context that sought it in specific branches of the democratic transitional path. There is no justification for not returning to their desire for a coup during any new turn of events, especially in terms of security. This makes vigilance the key word for anyone who wants to preserve this path. We have overcome the grave danger, but we are not beyond all risks until we hold free and fair elections in the summer or immediately thereafter.

The author is a Tunisian academic and politician. This is a translation of the Arabic text published by Arabi21 on 24 January, 2014

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.