Caid Essebsi wants to amend Tunisian constitution to give president more power

"The president has no major functions and the executive power is in the hands of the prime minister," Caid Essebsi said in his speech.
Wednesday 20/03/2019
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi speaks during a news conference at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, Tunisia November 8, 2018. (Reuters)
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi speaks during a news conference at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, Tunisia November 8, 2018. (Reuters)

Tunisia's president called on Wednesday for changes to the new constitution to give the presidency more power, in the latest escalation of a dispute between the two highest offices in the country.

He also challenged Islamist party Ennahdha's insistence on Islam as "the religion of the state," saying the Tunisian Constitution stipulates that the country's state is "civil" and not religion-based.

The constitution, adopted in 2014 after the uprising of 2011 that toppled the Ben Ali regime, significantly erodes the previously extensive power of the presidency and gives the prime minister and parliament a much bigger role.

But President Beji Caid Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed have been at loggerheads since last year.

Caid Essebsi has called on Chahed to resign but he defied him and formed a new governing coalition last November with the Islamist Ennahda party. He criticised the prime minister for failing to consult with him on the cabinet lienup.

Now, with a parliamentary election due in October and a presidential vote starting in November, Caid Essebsi is calling for an overhaul of the nation's ruling charter. But it is clear any amendments will have to wait until after the elections.

The parliamentary race is expected to be fought closely by Ennahda, the more secular Tahya Tounes party of Chahed, and the Nidaa Tounes party now led by Hafedh Caid Essebsi, the president's son.

Neither the prime minister nor the president have declared their candidacy to the office of president. But Caid Essebsi insisted that the issue of candidacy should not be the priority.

"The president has no major functions and the executive power is in the hands of the prime minister," Essessbi said in a speech broadcast on state television at the Palace of Carthage to mark Independence Day.

Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956.

"It would be better to think about amending some chapters of the constitution," he said. The president controls defence and foreign policy - both in reality relatively minor policy areas.

The political wrangling over the past months has alarmed donors who have kept the country afloat with loans granted in exchange for a promise of reforms such as cutting a bloated public service.

The president's son has accused Chahed of failing to tackle high inflation, unemployment and other problems.

The North African country has been hailed as the "Arab spring's" only democratic success, because protests toppled Ben Ali without triggering the violent upheaval seen in Syria and Libya.

But since 2011, nine cabinets have failed to resolve Tunisia's economic problems, which include high inflation and unemployment, and impatience is rising among lenders such as the International Monetary Fund.

Caid Essebsi said the disproportionate power wielded by the prime minister has not ensured good results for the country, citing the decline of key economic indicators since 2011. 

Annual inflation hit a record high of 7.5% in 2018 as the dinar currency tanked, making food imports more expensive.

(Reuters)