Tunisia’s democracy experiment put to the test
In the dispute over competences between the president, the government and the parliament – against the background of a serious economic and health crisis – President Kais Saied took the reins of power for 30 days on July 25 by means of a controversial interpretation of Article 80 of the constitution. The vast majority of Tunisians support this arbitrary extension of the president’s power, which expires on August 24. Tunisia’s experiment with democracy is being tested – similar to 2014, when four civil society organizations led the standard bearer of the Arab Spring out of the political crisis. What will happen in the current political crisis is still unclear; four scenarios are possible.
The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index BTI classifies Tunisia as a defective democracy. For years, the BTI has identified deficits in the rule of law, especially the lack of a constitutional court, an insufficient fight against corruption and the inability of parties and politicians to compromise in order to achieve good governance. The BTI 2020 is concerned to note the increasing number of Tunisians who favor an authoritarian model of government. On the bright side, it points to a broad and active civil society.
The Tunisian representative democracy experiment has been in transformation for ten years:
2011: With relatively peaceful mass demonstrations, Tunisians drove long-term ruler Ben Ali into exile. The citizens won freedom of expression, of the press, of assembly and of association, important political rights that much of the population of 12 million still does not want to do without. The ex-president’s ruling party is dissolved, the banned Islamic party Ennahda is admitted, many secular parties are founded, and Tunisians elect a constitutional assembly.
2013: After the assassinations of two members of parliament from left-wing parties, Tunisia finds itself in a first serious political crisis. This is not solved by the members of the constitutional assembly or the government, but by an initiative of four respected civil society organizations: The umbrella organizations of trade unions and entrepreneurs as well as the associations of lawyers and human rights organizations reach a compromise between the secular and Islamic forces. The consensus clears the way for the adoption of a constitution. This establishes a sensitively balanced representative parliamentary-presidential mixed system of government, which is intended to secure influence and participation for both ideological camps. It is assumed that the Islamic Ennahda party will become the strongest group in parliament and will be able to appoint the prime minister or at least participate in his or her nomination, while the secular forces would win the presidency by direct election. Moreover, the compromise establishes the transitional government under Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, which sets up free, transparent and orderly parliamentary and presidential elections for autumn 2014.
In the first legislative period from 2014 to 2019, democratic institutions and processes functioned comparatively well because the Islamic Ennahda Party led by its chairman Rached Ghannouchi and the secular Nidaa Tounes Party of the then president Beji Caid Essebsi acted with a willingness to cooperate and govern in a quasi grand coalition.
However, they do not strengthen the judicial institutions and thus the separation of powers, in particular they do not establish the Constitutional Court. Moreover, necessary social and economic reforms and modernization are not introduced. Two crucial failures that are still affecting the country today.
Inflation, national debt, deficits in social security funds and state-owned enterprises, unemployment and migration continue to rise. The majority of voters (over 80% according to a survey commissioned by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation) are increasingly of the opinion that democratization from 2011 onwards has not brought any socio-economic dividends. Disenchantment with politics is spreading.
Autumn 2019: The frustration is reflected in voting behavior: The second presidential and parliamentary elections take place in a difficult social and economic context. Many eligible voters, especially young people, stay away from the ballot boxes or cause surprises. With 70 % of the votes cast, the majority of Tunisians vote for the current president Kais Saied, a conservative law professor without party affiliation, who presents himself in the election campaign as an “anti-system candidate” and as “non-corrupt and modest”. Despite losses, the Islamic Ennahda enters parliament as the strongest faction with 20%, closely followed by populists, especially the Qalb Tounes party of media entrepreneur Nabil Karoui. The Chamber of Deputies, led by 78-year-old Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, is fragmented into numerous factions. A stable government constellation does not come about.
In the past two years, the president, the prime minister and the speaker of parliament have become entangled in a struggle over competences; now it is becoming apparent that this sensitive parliamentary-presidential mixed system lacks a constitutional court that could have ruled on disputes over competences. Moreover, parliamentarians and ministers are increasingly perceived as incompetent and weak in decision-making. According to surveys conducted by Sigma Conseil in June 2020, 70% of Tunisians do not feel represented by parliament; the high level of disapproval is partly due to allegations of corruption and the frequent changes of various deputies from one party to another, which shifts the balance of power and paralyzes the government majority. In particular, consensus-building remains highly deficient.
By July 2021, the bottom falls out of the barrel: While the economy is struggling and tourism is down, the government is not making progress with the management of vaccination and hospitals, the number of infected people is rising dramatically, many Tunisians are dying from or with COVID-19. In this heated atmosphere, the Ennahda party demands from the prime minister by July 25 that all political prisoners from the dictatorship period, including many Ennahda party members and supporters, receive compensation.
On July 25, mass protests occur, and the president takes over the reins of power: by decree, Kais Saied decides the conflict of competences with parliament and government in his favor: he suspends the separation of powers by dismissing the prime minister, shutting down parliament for 30 days and taking over the public prosecutor’s office. This line of action is justified by a controversial interpretation of Article 80 of the Constitution, which allows such a step only if there is imminent danger to the security and independence of the state. Whether this danger really exists is a matter of interpretation; however, the president has very strong popular support for his arbitrary expansion of power, with polls showing around 87% approval. Presidential decrees that place politicians and officials suspected of corruption and office abuse under house arrest or bring them to court are popular. Critical voices, on the other hand, worry that uncontrolled governing with presidential decrees represents a creeping autocratization. Saied justifies the legitimacy of his actions with the high approval of Tunisians for his decisions and with references to the fulfilment of election promises.
According to the constitution, the 30-day emergency period expires on August 24. It is unclear whether he will order an extension for another 30 days or seek constitutional amendments that would either strengthen the president’s decision-making power at the expense of government and parliament or even completely suspend parliamentary democratic processes. It remains to be seen how Tunisians and civil society forces will react and whether the health, social and economic situation for the people will improve noticeably.
The democratic experiment in Tunisia is being put to the test, and four scenarios are possible:
Scenario one: It is very likely that the presidential rule by decree will be extended for another 30 days, based on the interpretation of Article 80 that Tunisia is still in an emergency situation. Saied is expected to appoint a prime minister by his own to implement his instructions. He is already dismissing ministers considered incompetent and is appointing instead officials such as a professor of medicine and a former army colonel for the health portfolio. In the meantime, vaccination management has eased somewhat with supplies from the EU and distribution and vaccination by the military and volunteers. The corruption charges against various parliamentarians and announcements that entrepreneurs should invest embezzled funds into charitable projects also remain popular.
Scenario two: It is quite likely that President Saied will begin to propagate and initiate a change in the distribution of power in the existing representative parliamentary-presidential mixed system. Following his aversion to parliament and parties, the law professor might envisage a more president-centered system following the French model, where the prime minister and government are no longer elected by parliament, but appointed and dismissed by the president. For constitutional changes, however, he would need a two-thirds majority in parliament. It is unclear how Saied intends to mobilize this majority. He may be counting on corruption cases against parliamentarians to make other deputies compliant. First of all, the parliament would have to be allowed to reconvene; whether they would then agree to the president’s proposals for constitutional amendments is just as unpredictable as their attitude to a self-dissolution and new elections, which the president is apparently aiming for.
Scenario three: Even during the election campaign, law professor Kais Saied repeatedly spoke out against parties, parliament and federal structures and advocated a system of government in which the population elects local councils, which in turn delegate representatives to a national parliament. At the top would be a directly elected president with supreme powers, who would also designate the government. According to comparative BTI analysis, a council system with an overpowering president would largely dissolve the separation of powers and presidential accountability. For such a comprehensive transformation of the system of government towards centralized presidential rule, Kais Saied would not only need a two-thirds majority in parliament, but also the support of relevant social actors. The powerful trade union confederation UGTT, for example, may as of yet not have objected to the president’s current decisions. But it is unlikely that the UGTT and its three civil society partners from the business community, the human rights associations and the lawyers’ associations, with whom they resolved the first major political crisis in 2014, will support a comprehensive (and at least partly authoritarian) transformation of the system that would also limit their opportunities for political participation.
Scenario four: Another unlikely scenario is a regression to authoritarianism along the lines of the much-cited “Egyptian model”. Kais Saied is not a general-in-presidency, like Egypt’s al-Sisi, and the Tunisian army has traditionally kept its distance from the economy and politics, compared to the Egyptian army. Three impediments stand in the way of a regression to authoritarian government structures: (1) Democratic norms (as distinct from democratic processes and institutions) are popular. According to surveys, almost all Tunisians no longer want to do without the freedoms they have gained, especially freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of association and freedom of assembly. (2) Civil society is organized and committed. A critical public accompanies the president’s emergency policy. If he openly crosses anti-democratic lines, he can count on resistance from the same organizations that saved the democratic experiment in 2014. (3) The Islamists are warned and prepared. An Egyptian scenario, in which the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party was crushed and banned from society and politics as from 2013, would be resisted by Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party, which so far can rely on around 20% of Tunisian voters.
The current political crisis is obscure, with many participants and observers wavering between hope and skepticism. Many young Tunisians in particular support the president’s “decisions to overcome the tragic situation in Tunisia”. All the Tunisians I spoke to on the phone in the last few days do not believe that there will be violent clashes. They want their pressing social, economic and health problems to be solved quickly through good and more efficient governance.
Any changes in the current division of powers between the president, prime minister and parliament are no substitute for a firm establishment of rule of law and for the constitutional court to be established. Constitutional changes are also no guarantee that decision-makers will become less susceptible to corruption or that consensus-building will improve.
In order to gain renewed trust among the electorate, the parties could use the current phase as an opportunity to make their organization more socially rooted and their financing more transparent, and to introduce an electoral law that limits party fragmentation and regulates parliamentary party changes more strictly. It is interesting to note that a large group of younger Ennahda party members are already calling for Ghannouchi and the old leadership to resign and for a pragmatic realignment of their party.
Tunisia’s democracy is at a crossroads. The coming days will show whether democracy and efficiency will be played off against each other or reconciled.