Tunisia’s constitutional referendum, a “one-man show” for the president?

  On July 25, 2022, on the occasion of the 65th “Republic Day” in the Republic of Tunisia, the country held a referendum on a new constitution for the whole people on the fundamental system of the country. However, although the referendum was passed and Tunisia changed from a semi-presidential system to a presidential system, the referendum only had a 30% turnout, and the international media seemed to pay little attention to it. Therefore, some outsiders believe that the referendum is more like a “one-man show” “directed and performed” by Tunisian President Keith Said.
Tripartite conflict ‘intensifying’

  The referendum on the new constitution began a year ago with the “extraordinary action” of Tunisian President Keith Saeed. On July 25, 2021, he suddenly dismissed the government, suspended parliamentary activities, and announced that the country would be governed by a presidential decree, citing the chaotic domestic political situation. The reason why he was able to make such a bold change was partly due to popular support and partly because the struggle between himself, the parliament and the then prime minister had intensified.
  Since the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011, Tunisia’s political transition has been seemingly calm on the surface, but in reality, undercurrents have been surging, and the political situation has always been unstable. Tunisia’s economy has been sluggish for a long time, the national finance is on the verge of collapse, the number of the country’s middle class is shrinking, and the unemployment rate and poverty rate are also rising. The security situation in Tunisia is also at risk due to the threat of terrorism. As a result, the people not only lost confidence in the government, but also angered the entire political system, political parties, and political figures. As a law professor, Keith Said, who has no political experience, was also elected as the President of Tunisia in 2019. Said was once smug after being elected president, but he has been constrained by the Prime Minister and Speaker, unable to realize his political ambitions. According to the old constitutional arrangement before the referendum, the executive power of the state is held by the president and the prime minister respectively, and the parliament is the core of state power. However, the Islamic political party “Renaissance Movement”, which became the largest party in the parliament in 2016, is not only related to attempts to promote the state The secularized President Syed is the opposite and still dominates the parliament most of the time. Therefore, the conflict between President Said, the Speaker and the Prime Minister is becoming more and more difficult to resolve.
  After dissolving the government in July 2021, President Syed announced that the president has broad legislative, executive and other powers, and decided to lead the government in person and promote reforms in the name of the people. On September 28, 2021, Syed announced the political reform roadmap after appointing Najira Ramadan, who is also a “political amateur”, as the new prime minister, the most important of which is the new constitutional referendum.
From semi-presidential to presidential

  The draft new constitution was drafted by Tunisian jurist Sadiq BlackRock, but he has publicly stated that the version the government finally released differs from the version it submitted. Therefore, the new constitution more reflects the political ideals and personal will of President Said, who is also a constitutional scientist. Compared with the old constitution promulgated in 2014, the new constitution mainly makes the following changes.
  First, Tunisia’s political system officially shifted from a parliament-led semi-presidential system to a presidential system. For example, Article 87 of the new Constitution stipulates that the President exercises executive power with the assistance of the government and is the highest executive head; Article 112 stipulates that the government is accountable to the President; Article 101 stipulates that the President appoints the Prime Minister of the country and appoints on the advice of the latter Cabinet; Article 102 stipulates that the President has the right to dismiss all or individual members of the Cabinet, and does not need to obtain a vote of confidence in the Parliament; Article 116 stipulates that if the Parliament wants to dissolve the Cabinet, 2/3 of the members must agree. In addition, the new constitution provides that the president enjoys immunity from accusation for the performance of his duties, which effectively protects the president from impeachment.
  Second, the role of parliament has been significantly weakened and become an auxiliary institution. For example, Article 68 of the new constitution stipulates that the president has the right to create, and the parliament must give priority to discussion of legislative initiatives submitted by the president. Article 81 also changed the parliament from unicameral to bicameral, and created regional councils under the parliament. It can be said that the new constitution has reduced the role of the parliament, and although the content of how the regional parliaments will be established has not yet been announced, it reflects President Said’s consistent idea of ​​decentralization.
  Thirdly, the judicial power in Tunisia has become only judicial function. According to the new constitution, the judicial power is no longer one of the central powers of the state, but instead is subordinate to the government and only performs its judicial function. Article 120 of the new constitution states that judges are nominated by the Supreme Judicial Council and appointed by the President. The Supreme Court is divided into three, each with its own functions. The new constitution also re-established constitutional guarantees, including the Constitutional Court, and revised institutions and procedures. The Constitutional Court is no longer established independently, but consists of some judicial, administrative and financial officials. This in fact weakens the constitutional court’s function of supervising and restricting executive power.
  In contrast, although the new constitution is very different from the constitution promulgated in 2014, it has many similarities with the constitution in force before 2011. After going through the semi-presidential system implemented in the so-called “democratic transition” since 2011, Tunisia seems to have returned to some extent to its pre-transition presidential system.
Can it develop into a “multi-act play”?

  Judging from the results of the referendum, only about 30% of the voters in Tunisia completed the ballot, of which 94.6% of the voters voted in favor and the referendum was passed. This shows that despite the low turnout, the majority of the people acquiesced to many of President Saeed’s “unconventional operations”. Before the referendum, he dissolved parliament, reorganized the Supreme Independent Electoral Council, and reappointed Supreme Court justices, sparking criticism from political forces at home and abroad. The opposition parties “Renaissance Movement” and “Heart of Tunis” formed the “National Salvation Front” to announce a boycott. The Tunisian Human Rights League and the Lawyers Association called on the public to vote against it. For a time, the domestic public opinion in Tunisia seemed to drown out government propaganda. But according to polls, President Saeed’s approval rating has fallen sharply from last year, but it is still higher than other politicians. However, the low turnout also negatively affected the legitimacy of the constitution. After the referendum, the country’s opposition is poised to overturn its results. External forces such as the United States and the European Union have also expressed objections, arguing that the new constitution is insufficient in terms of effectiveness, inclusiveness and openness.
  The referendum has largely changed the direction and process of Tunisia’s political transition, bringing it into a new phase of uncertainty. President Said de facto declared in action the failure of Tunisia’s political transition since the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011, as the country returned to an era dominated by executive power and a major setback for the party system represented by parliament. But for the Tunisian people, fed up with the ongoing chaos at home, they long for a strong leader to restore order and revive the economy through swift and effective means. But it remains to be seen whether the new political system established by President Saeed will work in the face of a mountain of questions.
  Whether President Said can turn the “one-man show” directed by him in the Tunisian constitutional referendum into a “multi-act play” will also determine the future development trend of Tunisia. The new constitution stipulates that the president can serve two consecutive five-year terms, and there is no explicit prohibition on extending the presidential term by amending the constitution. If President Said takes office smoothly, Tunisia may usher in a new stage of development. But if it fails, Tunisia could be plunged into new turmoil. In addition, for other Arab countries in transition, the new constitution adopted by Tunisia also has certain instructive significance. This means that the so-called “Arab Spring” has clearly receded, and the “strongman politics” that the people are looking forward to, which can solve problems immediately, has returned to some extent. For national governance, the methods that can quickly and effectively solve problems and improve people’s livelihood are the methods that the people care about and support the most.