El rechazo a los amplios poderes del presidente de Túnez lleva a un amplio boicot en las legislativas

Rejection of Tunisian president's increased powers leads to widespread boycott of legislative elections


16 | 02 | 2023


Pioneer of the Arab Spring, the Maghreb country is in a political crisis aggravated by the new unchecked powers of the head of state.

In the picture

Tunisian President Kaïs Saied [Pres. Tunisia].

The popular rejection of the growing powers acquired by the Tunisian President, Kaïs Saied, and his lack of effectiveness in dealing with the difficult economic situation status , have increased social unrest in the Maghreb country. The widespread boycott of the legislative elections (in the second round, on January 29, only 11.4% participated) and the street protests mark an instability that the new Constitution, promoted by Saied last year, has only accentuated. Tunisia has changed its political system from parliamentary to presidential, in which the head of state, with hardly any controls, becomes the most powerful figure in the country. The arrests of opponents indicate that the president is willing to continue on the path of confrontation, at least as long as the army remains on the sidelines.

Since 2011, Tunisia has lived in a status of general instability. The so-called "Jasmine Revolution", which took place that year, gave way to a democratic transition in which multiple governments succeeded one another, most of them short-lived largely due to the serious structural problems afflicting the country such as unemployment, corruption or the collapse of certain services. These are issues that motivated the Arab Spring demonstrations, and which have not been satisfactorily resolved.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the already deep social crisis in Tunisia, which is now facing the reality of being a heavily indebted state negotiating its fourth bailout plan in ten years with the International Monetary Fund. The economic indicators are certainly worrying: in the period average between the beginning of the Arab Spring and 2020, for example, Tunisia has fallen thirty places, from 48th to 78th, in the Davos "Doing Business" ranking. The economic growth forecast for this year is barely 1.6%, and public indebtedness is around 100% of GDP when it was 48% in 2010. Other negative figures are the decline in GDP per capita from $ 4,140 in 2010 to $ 3,320 in 2019; the sustained increase in inflation for ten years, reaching an annual average of 5%; and the high fees of poverty (21%) and unemployment (18%, exceeding 40% among younger cohorts). According to a recent report recent World Bank report, 12.6% of the population suffers from malnutrition.

Before the revolution, Tunisia prided itself on being one of the most secularized nations in the region, respecting religious freedom and maintaining a strong separation between religion and state. The 2011 riots changed the status and the country began to experience a split between those in favor of maintaining the secularity of the state and those favoring a return to the principles of Islam as guiding public life. This division adds to and aggravates the status systemic crisis the country is experiencing.

As one of the fruits of the "Jasmine Revolution", Tunisia undertook a process of reforms that culminated in the approval in 2014 of a new Constitution that, it was hoped, would return stability to the country. Far from it, the country has been facing for several months a deep crisis caused by the lack of agreement between the main political forces of the nation - President Saied, the Islamist Enhada party led by Rashid Ganuchi, president of the National Assembly, and the secularist Liberators Party - on the distribution of executive power between the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, and the Speaker of Parliament.

At the beginning of 2021, the country experienced a wave of demonstrations by citizens denouncing the status economic hardship in which Tunisia was immersed, and demanding social justice and an end to the violence with which the forces of order were applied to repress the protests.

The serious disturbances that took place during those days served as a catalyst for the disagreement between the three state authorities. Faced with the chaos caused by these confrontations, and after months of political paralysis, President Saied invoked article 80 of the Constitution, which authorizes him to adopt "exceptional measures" in case of "imminent danger to the country's institutions". By virtue of the aforementioned article, Saied decreed in the first written request the suspension of Parliament and the lifting of the immunity of its members, as well as the dismissal of the Prime Minister and other high-ranking officials, measures which, in addition to being extended indefinitely, were extended two months later by additional measures. Finally, on September 29, the president appointed Najla Bouden Romdhnane as prime minister.

Despite Saied's assurances that he had taken all these measures to "save the state and society" from the serious crisis it was going through, the president could not avoid the political storm that broke out when Rashid Ghannuchi, Speaker of Parliament and leader of Enhada, denounced what he claimed was an abuse of authority by Saied. Ghannuchi argued that Saied had failed in his constitutional duty to consult a priori the implementation of article 80 with the head of the Government and the Speaker of Parliament, and that the measure had not been sanctioned by the Constitutional Court, not yet constituted because of Saied's refusal to sign the establishment of this body.

This maneuver, which served Saied to remove Enhada's Islamists from power, and even to close down Al Jazeera's offices in the state capital, earned the president a reputation as an anti-Islamist, and prompted civil service examination to label his actions as "usurpation of power."

Since that time, Saied has been ruling by virtue of a decree that concentrates in his hands all the power of the state. In the exercise of this almost omnipotent power, the president has, over the past year, dismantled independent constitutional bodies and severely damaged the judicial system, provoking an acute institutional crisis and an unprecedented erosion of the rule of law in Tunisia.

New Constitution

More B, in early July 2022, Saied announced his intention to reform a Constitution with which he had notoriously always been dissatisfied, not least because of the restrictions it imposed on the power of the head of state, limited to the leadership of the Armed Forces and the conduct of the country's foreign relations.

After its approval, the new Basic Law was submitted to a referendum - the first of its kind subject in Tunisian history - which was held on July 25, exactly one year after the maneuver that led him to concentrate all the levers of power in his hands.

The Tunisian Electoral Commission was quick to announce massive support for the new Constitution, which, according to its president in press conferencethe vote, was close to 95 percent. This was interpreted by some interested observers as an indicator that a significant part of the Tunisian population still held out hope that Saied could improve the country's status on the basis of the concentration of powers he had introduced. The reality, however, is quite different, especially considering that only 27% of the registered citizens turned out to vote, as the civil service examination had boycotted the call accusing the project of lacking a "democratic foundation".

The new Constitution dismantles the separation of powers and is strongly marked by the figure of Saied, for which it has been branded as "ultra-presidentialist''. Not in vain, since the new text grants the President of the Republic unlimited powers and immunity from any form of political or criminal liability, and lacks - unlike the 2014 Constitution - mechanisms to counterbalance the power of the President, who has full capacity to dissolve the chambers.

On the other hand, the new text provides for a completely disempowered judiciary, and contains provisions that could bury any hope of an independent justice system in Tunisia. While retaining the former Superior Councils of the judiciary, the new Constitution significantly reduces their prerogatives, handing over to the president the power to appoint judges, albeit to proposal of these Councils. Moreover, the Constitutional Court envisaged in the 2014 Constitution as the sole interpreter of the Basic Law, is reduced to the role of a mere technical court, composed of judges nearing the end of their degree program and appointed on the basis of their seniority, rather than their skills and knowledge.

Finally, the new Constitution ceases to define Tunisia as a "Muslim country", although it considers the country as part of the 'Umma', which requires the president to profess the Islamic religion and assume responsibility for achieving the "objectives of Islam". This secularization has been interpreted as a gesture of rejection of Enhada and his postulates.

International non-governmental organizations supporting rights and freedoms in Tunisia are very alarmed by the entrance in force of this new Constitution for what it represents in terms of retrogression compared to that of 2014, starting with a preamble that ignores the principles of universal human rights, pluralism and the supremacy of the rule of law.

Against this backdrop, two-round parliamentary elections were held in Tunisia on December 17, 2022 and January 29, 2023 to elect the 161 members of the weakened Assembly of People's Representatives. The very low turnout recorded in the elections (8.8% of the possible voters, the most leave since the 2011 Revolution, and 11.4% in the second) speaks volumes of how Tunisian society has turned its back on Saied's policies, joining the boycott promoted by several of the civil service examination parties, Enhada among them. According to the electoral authorities, the final results will be announced on March 4.

Forward flight

By way of conclusion, it can be said that the new Constitution promoted by President Kais Saied has brought about important changes in Tunisia's institutional and power structure, which have only deepened the economic, social and political crisis the country is going through. The new text centralizes power in the hands of President Saied, replacing the parliamentary system with a strongly presidentialist one, and limits the influence of the political civil service examination . With this, it can be inferred that the president intends to dismantle the bequest of the Arab Spring and remake the system that prevailed before 2011.

With the perspective of the time that average from his election in 2019 until now, it is possible to appreciate that Saied's government has not been successful in combating the structural problems afflicting the country. The president has shown that he has ambitious plans for Tunisia, but seems to be unable to unite the country, or to create a solid foundation to address the serious political and socio-economic crises that have plagued Tunisia the past few years. Likewise, the results in the first and second round of parliamentary elections demonstrate the dissatisfaction of the population, which is now demanding his resignation.

Seen from the outside, this dark panorama complicates the possibility of the President convincing the negotiators of the International Monetary Fund to finally grant the country the $1.9 billion loan that is so necessary to alleviate, even momentarily, the serious economic crisis Tunisia is going through. For its part, the European Union also seems to be sending signals of loss of confidence in Saied (let the gesture of not sending observers to the electoral quotation serve as sample), and the same is true of the United States, which has decided to cut the civilian and military financial aid as from the middle of next year.

In the midst of this deep crisis, the leave turnout in the parliamentary elections seems to indicate that the Tunisian population faces with weariness and frustration a status of uncertainty regarding the political stability of the country that feeds the serious economic status . The protests last January in Tunisia seem to indicate a growing popular contestation to Saied's measures.

The future of the president's reforms, and his own political survival, seem uncertain, depending in no small measure on the attitude of the Tunisian Armed Forces, an institution hitherto respected by Tunisian society for its record of neutrality, and for not having violently repressed popular discontent during the "Jasmine Revolution". Since his accession to power, Saied has cultivated his relationship with the military establishment, capitalizing in his favor on the prestige of the institution whose support, however, he cannot take for granted.

The position of the Tunisian Armed Forces in a scenario in which Saied continues to deepen his personalist vision of power and to erode the democratic gains won with the revolution is an unknown, and a military reaction cannot be ruled out in an attempt to put an end to or at least limit what many see as an authoritarian drift in the country, especially if the reforms do not translate into an improvement in the country's severely deteriorated economic situation status .

Tunisia is at a crossroads. Successive governments since the fall of Ben Ali have been unable to come up with innovative solutions to the nation's growing problems. This invites one to think, pessimistically, that this time will be no different, and that Tunisia will continue to sink into a pit from which it will find it difficult to emerge without trauma and injury.