Tunisia’s President, Kais Saied, Proposes New Constitution

Source: www.nytimes.com : 2022-07-01 16:36:21 : Vivian Yee

CAIRO — Tunisia’s president has taken another major step toward dismantling the country’s young democracy in a newly released draft constitution, giving himself broad powers while diluting those of Parliament and the judiciary.

President Kais Saied published the draft late on Thursday, weeks before it goes to a national referendum set for July 25. If approved, critics said it would push Tunisia — the only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring protests still standing — further toward autocracy.

The draft outlines a political system “with an omnipotent President, a powerless Parliament and a toothless judiciary,” Said Benarbia, the Middle East and North Africa regional director at the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists, wrote on Twitter.

Tunisia has been in crisis ever since Mr. Saied suspended Parliament and fired the prime minister almost a year ago amid political paralysis and economic convulsions. Since then, he has monopolized power in what he says is a quest to reform the country’s dysfunctional government and cleanse it of corruption. He has seized control of formerly independent institutions, jailed opponents, dismissed judges and ruled by decree.

His drive toward one-man rule has come as Tunisia’s economy veers toward collapse. The turmoil could jeopardize a much-needed International Monetary Fund bailout, which the lender has said should be given only if Mr. Saied’s political reforms are inclusive and win widespread public support.

But Tunisians are largely focused on making ends meet, paying little attention to Mr. Saied’s proposals. Less than 10 percent of citizens who were eligible to participate in an online survey did so, even though it was billed as a way for them to help shape the new constitution.

Political parties and civil society groups, including the country’s powerful public workers’ union, have refused to participate in the drafting of the new constitution or in the upcoming referendum.

In the end, the draft was written by a panel handpicked by Mr. Saied. The referendum, too, is widely expected to go Mr. Saied’s way; he now controls the formerly independent elections authority, and there is no minimum participation required for the draft to pass.

If it does, Mr. Saied will have remade Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution, written over two years of impassioned public debate, in a matter of weeks.

That document — which came after the 2011 popular uprising that overthrew the country’s longtime dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali — limited presidential powers and enshrined rights including the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Parliament was a primary player in forming a government and approving legislation.

Mr. Saied’s draft keeps most of the current Constitution’s clauses concerning rights and liberties. But it puts the president firmly in charge, relegating the judiciary and Parliament to something more akin to bureaucrats.

Mr. Saied would have the power to appoint the government (though Parliament could withdraw confidence from the government with a two-thirds majority vote) and propose laws. The president alone would make treaties and draft budgets and appoint or dismiss judges and ministers. The proposed constitution gives him the authority to dissolve Parliament, but there is no mechanism for removing the president.

The draft would give the president two five-year terms, which could be extended in case of imminent danger to the country.

The draft also delivered what appeared to be a rebuke of Mr. Saied’s main political foe, the Islamist party Ennahda, which has dominated Parliament since the post-revolution transition and is widely reviled among Tunisians.

It proposes dropping references to Islam as Tunisia’s state religion, though it says the country is part of the wider Muslim community and stipulates that the president must be Muslim.

In the short term, the draft would allow Mr. Saied to continue ruling by decree until a new Parliament is formed after elections in December. The legislative body would also look different, with the addition of a second chamber that the draft calls a “Council of Regions” — perhaps a nod to Mr. Saied’s ideas about representatives drawn from elected local councils, though few details are given.

Analysts expect the constitutional referendum to pass, but it is unlikely to resolve Tunisia’s political crisis, with opposition to Mr. Saied’s plans growing among both elite and ordinary Tunisians. In the past month, judges have gone on strike, a national strike paralyzed transportation and other public sectors and several protests have challenged Mr. Saied’s moves.

The draft would ban strikes by some public sector workers including judges.

Yet the economy may be the biggest factor in Mr. Saied’s eventual success or failure, analysts say. Already a shambles after years of corruption and mismanagement, it declined sharply after the coronavirus pandemic walloped the all-important tourism sector and the war in Ukraine pushed up food prices.

For months, the government has struggled to give out salaries on time or pay for wheat shipments.

Desperate for funding, the government has outlined plans to qualify for an I.M.F. loan by cutting its public wage bill and subsidies. Those reforms have faced stiff opposition from the country’s powerful national labor union, known by its French acronym, UGTT, which went on strike last month to protest the proposals.

But even if a bailout helps cover Tunisia’s soaring debt, the government will still be faced with reforming a deeply troubled economy.

High unemployment and prices were major factors in the 2011 uprising, but they also played a big role in the mass outpouring of support for Mr. Saied’s power grab last year. That support has weakened as Mr. Saied has failed to right the ship.

But with the opposition still fragmented and divided, and unable to propose a viable alternative, the president has not yet faced widespread unrest in the streets.

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