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Tunisia is torn between a reading of the constitution and the death of politics

July 28, 2020 at 4:20 pm

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied (C) 26 November 2019 [Anadolu Agency]

The crisis in Tunisia has taken a new turn with President Kais Saied tasking his former legal adviser and Interior Minister in the caretaker government, Hisham El-Mechishi, to form a new government following the resignation of Elyes Fakhfakh. The president used his constitutional right to choose the figure whom he deems most capable of heading the government, but he bypassed all the nominations from the parliamentary blocs, including Fadhel Abdelkefi, who was nominated by the two largest parliamentary blocs, Ennahda and the Heart of Tunisia.

No one following Tunisian affairs would need to make a huge effort to realise the depth of the crisis in which this nomination may result. There are, for a start, fears that the system of governance may be changed to a presidential set up, even though the constitution is clear that the government has to be a presidential parliamentary system and the choice of prime minister to form the government should be made from the nominations of the largest parliamentary bloc. However, the president used a constitutional right that grants him the authority to choose the prime minister in the event that the candidate chosen by the parliamentary blocs fails to obtain the confidence of the majority of MPs.

Moreover, there is a possibility that the House of Representatives will be dissolved in the event that the designated prime minister does not get a vote of confidence from parliament. This could lead to a political vacuum, and the country’s budget being burdened with the costs of holding early elections.

Furthermore, in the event that El-Mechishi manages to gain the confidence of parliament because blocs are forced to do so to prevent its dissolution, this may lead to a weak government being formed with no strong political base. It may also lead to years of contention between the prime minister and the parliament that was basically forced to give him a vote of confidence.

What deepens the crisis further is that President Saied alluded more than once to the weakness of the legitimacy of parliament, and to a complaint about the role of the parties and their differences. This indicates his desire to change the entire political system, which may lead to the death of post-revolutionary politics in Tunisia, as there is no politics without parties and no true democracy without a strong parliament with full legitimacy and powers guaranteed by the constitution.

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The president chose a candidate close to him, not a nominee of the parliamentary blocs, in order to seek greater control over the political process. However, this is a risky choice, as it does not guarantee the continued loyalty of the prime minister-designate, as happened in the disagreement between the late President Beji Caid Essebsi and Prime Minister Yusuf Al-Shahid. Nor is Saied certain about how parliament and the parties will react, which may disrupt the path of the government. This could worsen the situation in the country and prevent the government from achieving what is required of it, and the president will be the biggest loser because the government’s failure will count against him. At the end of the day, it is his government and he has chosen the prime minister.

There are difficult choices to be made by the parliamentary blocs as well, especially the largest, Ennahda. It can either refuse to grant a vote of confidence and will thus be responsible for dissolving parliament in the eyes of some voters; it can participate in a government where its decisions don’t have influence, despite being the largest parliamentary bloc; or it will grant a vote of confidence without participation in the government to ensure the continuation of parliament and not to appear to be the party hindering the political process. However, its hands will remain tied with regard to the government so that it is not held responsible for its failure.

It is clear that the president has chosen this path very consciously. He wants to control the minutiae of the political process on the one hand and on the other demonstrate his scepticism about the parliament and parties, considering them to be hindering the political process for “narrow interests”. However, he risks forming a government that will be weak, at best, and a failure in the worst-case scenario.

President Saied came from outside political institutions, with a solid legal and constitutional background. He exercised his constitutional right to appoint Elyes Fakhfakh and exercised it again by appointing Hisham El-Mechishi. However, he did not exercise the policy that guarantees the continuation of the political process and the government achievements needed by Tunisian citizens. He has ventured into the realm of striking at the Tunisians’ belief in democracy and the progress of the revolution, and declaring politics to be clinically dead.

The crisis in Tunisia is undoubtedly deep, but the country needs a president who excels in politics, not just in reading the constitution.

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