Tunisia’s draft constitution – what’s new, and why now?

President Kais Saied has pushed for the new constitution – opponents say it will slide the country away from democracy.

Tunisia's President Kais Saied
Tunisia's President Kais Saied gives a speech at the government's swearing-in ceremony at Carthage Palace outside the capital, Tunis, Tunisia on February 27, 2020 [File: Fethi Belaid/Pool via Reuters]

Tunisia has published a draft constitution that would further expand the president’s powers and limit the role of the parliament, raising fears of the prospect of one-man rule in the country.

The draft, published in Tunisia’s official gazette late on Thursday, will be voted on in a July 25 referendum, one year after President Kais Saied staged what critics have called a coup.

With no minimum level of participation required, analysts say the measure is likely to pass, but with only limited public involvement.

What’s new in the draft constitution?

  • If the constitution passes, it will allow Saied to continue to rule by decree until the creation of a new parliament after an election set for December.
  • The text gives him ultimate authority over the government and judiciary. The government would answer to the president and not to parliament. The chamber, however, could withdraw confidence from the government with a two-thirds majority, the gazette said. The move towards a more presidential system would reverse the post-2011 revolution parliamentary model that the country has adopted.
  • Saied would be allowed to present draft laws, have sole responsibility for proposing treaties and drafting state budgets, appoint or sack government ministers and appoint judges.
  • The president would be able to serve two terms of five years each, but extend them if they felt there was an imminent danger to the state, and would have the right to dissolve parliament, while no clause allows for the removal of a president.
  • The new constitution stipulates that the president would be the head of the armed forces and be charged with naming judges, who would be banned from striking.
  • The document also waters down the role of parliament, creating a new parliamentary chamber for “regions and districts”, chiming with Saied’s long-held vision for a decentralisation of power.
  • The first article of the document removes references to both Islam and the civilian nature of Tunisia, simply saying that it is a “free, independent and sovereign state”, adding lower down that the country “belongs to the Islamic Ummah” (worldwide community), and that it would work to “achieve the objectives of Islam in preserving [people’s] souls, money, religion, and liberty”.
  • The new constitution maintains most parts of the sections in its predecessor that enumerated rights and liberties, including freedom of speech, the right to organise in unions and the right to peaceful gatherings.

Why has the president introduced a new constitution?

  • Saied has been tightening his grip on power throughout the past year. On July 25 2021, Saied sacked the government, suspended and later dissolved the parliament, and set aside the 2014 constitution, in moves that sparked fears for the only democracy to have emerged from the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.
  • Saied’s intervention has thrust Tunisia into its biggest political crisis since the revolution that removed former autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
  • Saied has argued that his moves have been necessary to take away power from what he has labelled a corrupt political elite. The poor performance of Tunisia’s economy over the past few years and general frustration with the country’s leading politicians have won Saied support for his positions, but public anger is growing amid high inflation and unemployment, and declining public services.
  • Earlier this month, Saied sacked 57 judges, accusing them of corruption and protecting “terrorists” – accusations the Tunisian Judges’ Association said were mostly politically motivated.
  • In February, the president dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council that deals with the independence of judges. He then issued a decree establishing a new provisional judicial council, granting himself additional powers to control the country’s top judicial organisation.

What is the opposition saying?

  • None of the main Tunisian parties, including the ‘Muslim Democrat’ Ennahdha, which is the biggest in parliament and has played a significant role in successive coalition governments since the 2011 revolution, issued immediate comments on the draft constitution.
  • Most of the leading political parties are opposed to Saied’s moves and are urging their supporters to boycott the vote.
  • The International Commission of Jurists’ regional director, Said Benarbia, warned that the new draft constitution “defeats the very idea of separation of powers and checks and balances”. He said that the “proposed constitution provides for an unbridled presidential system, with an omnipotent president, a powerless parliament and a toothless judiciary”.
  • Many Tunisians are far more focused on a growing economic crisis and threats to public finances that have caused salary delays and the risk of shortages of key subsidised goods.
  • On June 16, Tunisia’s largest trade union staged a mass strike against the government’s economic reform plans, leading to closed airports, public transport, ports and government offices.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies