The four uncertainties facing Tunisian democracy

Salih Yasun

President Kais Saied’s intervention raised several questions regarding the future of democracy, some of which derive from his plans and others from the country’s institutional and structural circumstances.

On July 25, 2021 Tunisian President Kais Saied made a controversial decision to freeze the parliament for 30 days, dismiss the prime minister and his cabinet and lift the immunity of the parliamentarians.

The Constitutional Court, the body responsible for reviewing Saied’s decisions, has not been set up, and two weeks following Saied’s decisions, the roadmap for the future of Tunisian democracy remains unclear. There are four major elements that will dictate what’s to come, and the first is the role of ‘direct democracy’.

The first dilemma is whether Saied will be able to implement his envisioned plan of a hybrid system between direct democracy and presidentialism. Amending the constitution for a presidential system requires the support of two-thirds of parliament, and an absolute majority of votes cast in a subsequent referendum. Electoral laws are organic laws and amending them requires the absolute majority within parliament. 

Receiving support from parliament would entail Saied resuming its workings or mandating new elections, after which he would have to either convince the existing parties, or form a party loyal to him to receive enough seats. This remains a tall order, as Saied’s plan would imply that parties voluntarily give up a substantive portion of their powers, as elections would be held for individuals rather than party lists. 

Furthermore, Tunisia’s current electoral system combines proportional representation with the Hare quota method, making earning a majority of the seats a very challenging task for a single party. While the parliament is not a very popular institution in Tunisia, many Tunisians don’t favour a presidential system either.

Although regional and territorial elections have not taken place yet, their composition will include members elected from lists, mayors and representatives from unions and governors. The role of appointed governors, which remains important, and other participants remains unclear within Saied’s envisioned framework.

The future role of the parliament

Saied’s intervention undoubtedly challenged the authority of the parliament. However, even prior to this, the parliament had plenty of shortcomings: its resources were quite limited and its internal workings hindered the contributions of individual MPs. 

According to 2020 Arab Barometer survey results, only 15 percent of Tunisians trusted the government, and 89 percent thought that corruption is prevalent in national-level institutions. Many are disillusioned with the composition of post-revolutionary parliaments that did not live up to the aspirations of the people.

According to the most recent polls, Abir Moussi’s party, PDL, comes at the top with 36 percent of the vote, Ennahda comes second with 18.6 percent, followed by Qalb Tounes with 10.1 percent. It remains unlikely that Abir Moussi — who occasionally discredits the revolution in her speeches, and even applauded Saied’s intervention — would be willing to form a coalition government with either party. 

Thus, even if new elections are held, the protracted coalition crisis may continue and Tunisia may be governed by technocrat cabinets, with the president exerting an overarching influence.

The future of Ennahda

The July 25 intervention, and the following events, including the house arrest of senior Ennahda member Anouar Maarouf, pose one of the greatest threats for Ennahda since the revolution. 

The president’s intervention came during a period when many loyal Ennahda supporters were questioning the leadership of Rached Ghannouchi, the 80-year-old Ennahda leader and speaker of parliament. 

In September 2020, one hundred leaders from Ennahda, including those from the Executive Council, Shura Council and the Parliamentary Block, asked that Ghannouchi not run for the presidency of the party in the party’s next congress.

According to Bedirhan Mutlu, an independent analyst who has followed the developments in Tunisia closely, the opposition consists of both “conservative” and “liberal” wings of the movement across generations, presenting not an ideological split, but a demand for more internal democracy and a shift in party strategy.  

The intervention on July 25 did not silence internal criticism, as Oussama Sghaier, a young Ennahda MP, led a petition for the party to reflect on itself and dissolve its executive council immediately. The Ennahda Shura Council’s call for self-reflection in its first meeting after the intervention suggests that the party is receptive to the demands of some of the internal critiques.  

The Ennahda movement’s base has been declining since the 2011 election, when the party had obtained 37 percent of the vote, to 19.7 percent of the vote in the 2019 elections. More importantly, the party has lost touch with voters outside of its loyal base, as a 2018 Arab Barometer survey indicates that 75 percent of Tunisians do not trust Ennahda demonstrating that the party often fails to communicate its concerns with the greater population. 

The party’s 11th Congress, which is to be held towards the end of this year, will determine the prospects of a leadership change. Whether the party can expand the scope of its base or gain the trust of others remains to be seen.

Protests in Tunisia

The fourth uncertainty relates to the role of “street politics” in Tunisia. The 2011 revolution was spearheaded by citizens united around common themes such as freedom, dignity and social justice without a clear ideology. Although Tunisian society is characterised by low electoral participation rates, protest remains a common mode of expressing political dissent. 

The streets were mostly supportive of Kais Saied’s July 25 decision. However, it remains unclear whether this support can endure if Saied is unable to solve the economic and pandemic-related problems. Citizens returning to the streets but this time to protest could put additional layers of challenges on Tunisian democracy.

Saied currently rules Tunisia under a de facto presidential system. Whether he can transform this de facto arrangement into a de jure one and advance his other plans related to direct democracy remain ambiguous.

Recovering the parliament’s status will be challenging. At a minimum, the MPs need to unite around defending the parliamentary institutions and agree on some critical decisions. Yet, so far their responses to Saied’s decisions have diverged greatly. 

Whether Ennahda will divide or unite around Ghannouchi’s leadership, or take productive steps to connect with disillusioned Tunisians is unclear. It is also important to note that “street politics” remains a key variable that can shift the developments in any direction. 

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