Tunisia’s Second Republic and the Constitution in the context of the new political reality

By Nidhal Mekki, 27 January 2015
Tunisian President Beji Caid El-Sebsi meets the new Tunisian Prime Minister designate, Habib Essid, at the Presidential Palace, Carthage, Tunisia, on January 23, 2015. (EPA/STR)
Tunisian President Beji Caid El-Sebsi meets the new Tunisian Prime Minister designate, Habib Essid, at the Presidential Palace, Carthage, Tunisia, on January 23, 2015. (EPA/STR)

On December 31, 2014, Beji Essebsi Caïed was sworn in as the first President of the Second Republic in Tunisia. The event, which followed the second round of presidential elections held on December 21 is one of the final milestones in the democratic transition process which started in 2011. As Mr Essebsi s party, the liberal Nidaa Touness earned the right to form the next government, having emerged as the majority party in Parliament in the November legislative elections, his victory in the presidential elections also spared the country the political tension that would have been inevitable between two executive heads with a different political base. Though not officially a candidate of the Islamist Ennadha party, Mr Mazourki— Mr Essebsi’s main opponent in the leadership race— enjoyed huge support from Ennadha militants. With this election therefore, Tunisia’s Constitution of 27 January 2014 is finally entering into force in its totality—exactly a year after it was adopted

As mandated by Article 89 of the Constitution, one of Mr Essebsi’s first decisions, taken January 5, 2015, was to charge Mr. Habib Essid with the task of forming a government. In line with the President’s vision for an inclusive government, Prime Minister Essid immediately initiated consultations with different political parties including Ennadha with a view to forming a broad-based government of national unity. Giving the relatively peaceful conduct of the elections, Nidaa Touness’double victory in the elections and the political leadership’s apparent openness to an inclusive government, one would imagine that Tunisia is basking in the right political climate for a good start to the second republic. Yet, all is not what it seems.

The President’s commitment to an inclusive government which gives it a comfortable mandate to govern is not without obstacles. These range from agreeing on a common agenda for governmental action with all interested political parties to the composition of the government. The latter is proving to be particularly knotty.  Despite earlier openness to the President’s vision for a broad-based government including Ennadha—an idea that  divided the Nidaa Touness— the Islamist party has now announced it will block the confirmation of a government proposed last week by Prime Minister Essid after it was sidelined. They argue that the proposed cabinet is not sufficiently representative.  This is a serious blow to a consultation process which has already seen another potential coalition government partner—the Afek Touness Party— walk out of negotiations last week. The Popular Front—an alliance of left-leaning parties— also opposes the proposed cabinet. In a parliamentary configuration where none of the major parties have an absolute majority, the confirmation vote— due this Tuesday— has now been postponed to give room for more consultations on a cabinet that will gain the confidence of Parliament. 

Aggravating the internal division within the Nidaa Touness on whether or not Ennadha should be part of a broad-based government is the President’s earlier rejection of the idea of including Nidaa Touness members of parliament in the cabinet. Some attributed this to his desire to have non-partisan ministers, who are unprotected by a political agreement and are therefore completely loyal to him, rather than to the party.

Second, finding a candidate for the premiership was not without controversy. Disagreements within Nidaa Touness and between the latter and other political parties for a suitable candidate acceptable to all marked the process. In this chaos, the decision, it seems was ultimately imposed by President Essebsi. Even so, Mr Essid remains a controversial choice—even within his party. Ennahdha, Afek and the Free Patriotic Union parties welcomed his appointment but the Popular Front and the Congress for the Republic (CPR) resent the choice. Publicly, Mr Essebsi said he wants an independent Prime Minister to get the country back on the move but these parties doubt Mr Essid is that person. He has no political programme of his own which will make him reliant on President to whom he is perceived as being too close, having served as his interior minister when Mr Essebsi became Prime Minister following former President Ben Ali’s ouster.

A related point is the expected political neutrality of the President. He has duly resigned from his party as the rules require but apparently still wields influence on it. Mr Essid was officially presented as Nidaa Touness’ choice but sources close to the process suggest he was the President’s candidate. Opponents see this appointment as Mr. Essebsi’s attempts to circumvent that expectation and appropriate more powers than the Constitution confers to him.

In this context, some politicians, even within the Nidaa Touness have expressed concern on the likelihood of real governmental power shifting from Kasbah—the seat of government— to the Presidency in Carthage, should Mr Essebsi surround himself with loyalists. The probability that this happens also increases if any coalition government that is eventually formed lacks the necessary cohesion, and solidarity to effectively govern. This creates a governance vacuum in which a President with a charismatic personality—which Mr. Essebsi is— emerges as the indispensable Whip to the satisfaction of an outraged public hungry for governmental effectiveness.

The political system established by the Constitution of the second republic will be completely weakened and exposed to manipulation, without any need to alter a single letter in the text should this happen. This fear is not unfounded. The early days of the fifth French republic under the charismatic President de Gaulle experienced more or less similar dynamics as the latter gradually appropriated more powers than allowed under the essentially mixed political regime type the 1958 Constitution established.

Whether the situation actually develops in this direction in the context of Tunisia is too early to tell but the very existence of the ingredients that facilitate it is reason for concern.  As indicated, Mr. Essebsi, like de Gaulle, has the charisma and skills to maneuver and manipulate such gaps to fit his political agenda should he wish to. Like the legendary French President, he also enjoys the benefit of a popular mandate as parliament, having been elected by universal suffrage. A weak coalition government, as hinted also increases that prospect.

It may be argued that while any developments that do go in the direction described above may be linked more to the personality of Mr Essebsi and therefore time-bound with his regime, it is hard to see how such a precedent will not be manipulated in the future by others if it serves their political agendas.

With a new and widely acclaimed Constitution, new institutions and a new President elected through processes general described as open and democratic, Tunisia, no doubt, has finally turned a new page. Its democracy looks set to take off as the country starts a new chapter in 2015. Yet this new chapter also presents new threats and challenges as shown above. Tunisians as a people and nation must remain vigilant to these challenges in order to enable the gains of the past four years to nurture and grow.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.


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