The constitution is at the root of Tunisia’s political crisis

The crisis stems from a constitution that the people’s representatives were very slow to draft but very hurried to adopt.
Sunday 11/11/2018
A 2016 file picture shows Tunisia’s Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (R) and Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi at the Carthage Palace on the outskirts of Tunis. (AFP)
Constitutional pitfalls. A 2016 file picture shows Tunisia’s Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (R) and Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi at the Carthage Palace on the outskirts of Tunis. (AFP)

The political crisis in Tunisia is not just a matter of who has which prerogatives between the president and the prime minister. It is much deeper and has its roots in the country’s 2014 constitution.

That document took a long time to draft but was voted in rather quickly. The process of elaborating it was driven by conflicting desires to secure as much power as possible between the major winning parties in the constitutional elections, more so than by concern for the future of the country and its stability.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi has stated his rejection of the procedures followed by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed in the recent cabinet reshuffle. “My main duty is to see to it that the constitution is not violated. Article 92 makes it mandatory for the prime minister to inform the president of the decisions taken,” Caid Essebsi said.

The government responded to that statement by insisting on the “legality” of the reshuffle and the prime minister’s choices.

The political crisis, which peaked November 8 with feverish exchanges of stances regarding the ministerial reshuffle, is the tip of the iceberg. It does not reflect the wider scope of the crisis or foresee its end.

In normal political circumstances, the constitution reflects general political tendencies. It is formulated after much discussion and deliberation. Usually, legal and constitutional experts are called on to participate in production of the document to avoid confusion or ambiguity. Thus, the constitution becomes a regulator of political life and the deciding reference in cases of conflict.

In Tunisia’s case, the 2014 constitution was full of vague chapters and articles that accepted every interpretation and included provisions that tolerated more than one reading. The result was having many political situations not addressed by the constitution or involved conflicting articles.

The irony in the current crisis is that each side of the dispute bases its position on the constitution, invoking specific articles to prove the correctness of its position and the soundness of the procedures. Thus, there is proof that the constitution provides an elastic legislative basis allowing for various interpretations.

These constitutional shortcomings, revealed by real-life practices, become more dangerous in the absence of arbitration institutions that the constitution itself established and called for their urgent implementation.

Article 101 of the Tunisian Constitution states: “Disputes relating to the responsibilities and prerogatives of the President of the Republic and those of the Prime Minister shall be brought up to the Constitutional Court by either one of the concerned sides and the said court shall decide on the dispute within a week’s time.” However, the Constitutional Court has yet to see the light and that exacerbates the danger of the political impasse.

The spirit of consensus politics that marked the drafting of the 2014 constitution in Tunisia led to neglecting to think of pitfalls that could emerge during implementation of the constitution. There was also, among certain political parties involved in the drafting of the constitution and voting on its articles, a mentality of securing as much power and prerogatives as possible. These factors cast heavy shadows over the legislative product of the second republic in Tunisia.

Considering that the 2014 constitution lacked the necessary institutional safety belt, by the incompleteness of the required constitutional bodies like the Constitutional Court and others, this text has produced crises instead of being an arbiter of conflicts. Legal experts pointed out the shortcomings of the constitution right from its announcement and, today, many voices are calling for revising its ambiguous articles.

The crisis in Tunisia is not confined to the cabinet reshuffle. It does not lie in the power struggle between the two branches of the executive, either. It stems from a constitution that the people’s representatives were very slow to draft but very hurried to adopt. The result was a text unworthy of the second Tunisian republic, a text in which the mentality of war spoils and dubious voting tactics played a crucial role in adopting the calamitous articles that are paralysing the political scene in Tunisia. I’m afraid the worst is yet to come.

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