Early elections emerge as an option to end Tunisia’s political impasse

Trade union leader Noureddine Tabboubi said President Saied supports early elections but also a return to 1959 constitution.

Saturday 19/06/2021
A file picture shows Tunisian President Kais Saied (C), Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi (R) and Assembly (parliament) speaker Rached Ghannouchi (L) attending a ceremony in the capital Tunis. (AFP)
A file picture shows Tunisian President Kais Saied (C), Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi (R) and Assembly (parliament) speaker Rached Ghannouchi (L) attending a ceremony in the capital Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS - Head of Tunisia’s powerful national labour union (UGTT) revealed Friday that President Kais Saied wants early presidential and legislative elections to be held after putting constitutional and electoral reforms to a referendum.

Noureddine Tabboubi made the revelation during an interview broadcast by a private TV station.

The president wants an amended version of the country’s first constitution voted in 1959, instead of the current constitution voted in 2104, to be put to a popular referendum, Tabboubi said. Saied also wants to amend the country’s electoral law.

The president himself has not confirmed his intent, which is likely to involve a protracted and complex process if set in motion with no guranteed results.

The 1959 constitution, adopted under the rule of first president Habib Bourguiba, provides for a presidential system of government, while the 2014 constitution shifts the balance in favour of the parliament and splits executive powers between the president and the prime minister.

The scenario of early general elections in Tunisia has become more than ever a probable option, in light of the ongoing political impasse.  But a return to the 1959 constitution seems far from likely in view of the negative reactions the idea has elicited till now.

Earlier this week, the idea of national dialogue was also floated, before political tensions escalated again, dimming hopes of any possible agreement. Saied reportedly insisted on prioritising  a review of the political system, angering key political players in the country and prompting calls for early general elections.

Tunisia’s powerful national labour union, better known by its French acronym UGTT, suggested Thursday that the country should hold early elections to resolve the political crisis.

A showdown between the president and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi has hindered the swearing-in of several members of Tunisia’s current cabinet after a reshuffle introduced last January.

A member of the executive committee of the UGTT Mohammed Ali Boughdiri said that “the union has a last option, which is the early general elections to resolve the current crisis, and the people will impose it.”

Boughdiri added in a statement to The Arab Weekly that “the union is still committed to the dialogue initiative, and we do not see solutions except through dialogue.”

But during the interview broadcast Friday by El-Hiwar Ettounsi TV channel, the union’s secretary-general seemed unhappy with the president’s wavering  for more than six months over the UGTT’s initiative towards a national dialogue that would discuss the underlying causes of the crisis in Tunisia.

 — Welcoming early elections —

The call for early elections is also being welcomed with caveats by many political actors, including Islamists.

Ennahda spokesman Fethi Ayadi expressed his party’s support for the union’s call to go to early elections if national dialogue fails.

A file picture shows Secretary-General of the Tunisian General Worker’s Union (UGTT) Noureddine Tabboubi delivering a speech in Tunis. (AFP).
A file picture shows Secretary-General of the Tunisian General Worker’s Union (UGTT) Noureddine Tabboubi delivering a speech in Tunis. (AFP).

However, certain Tunisian political parties believe that Ennahda’s new position on the elections falls within the context of outbidding Saied, who recently expressed his dissatisfaction with the current constitution and the system of government.

Mohsen Nabti, a spokesman for the Popular Current Party, said that “Ennahda’s position on the elections came within the framework of outbidding the President of the Republic. They wanted to tell him: If you want early elections, let all the heads of the current system leave, in an attempt to confuse the whole situation.”

Nabti added, “The solution begins with these people leaving power, because they are not qualified to rule the state for another period. The country is experiencing a complete collapse at economic, health, political and social levels.”

Democratic Current (Attayar ach-Chaabi) Party MP Ziad Ghannai told The Arab Weekly, “The democratic transition has stalled four years ago. The review of laws and the establishment of constitutional institutions have stalled and crises swept through most institutions.”

Ghannai added that, “holding new elections is an important idea” but he said, “the constitutional bodies must be set up, the electoral law should be amended, the electoral process adjusted and other measures should be taken to ensure the success of early elections. If held, these elections may put the democratic transition back on track. ”

Other political activists are not enthusiastic about early elections since it is will cost the cash strapped country millions of dollars and risk returning the same faces to office.

The viewpoint is not shared by Lotfi Zitoun, an Islamist activist who has taken his distance from Ennahda. He told Ettessia TV channel Friday, “Believe me, if new elections are held three months from now, you will not see the current faces anymore.”

 — Escalating tensions —

Political tensions seem to have escalated since Saied called earlier this week for a dialogue on legal and constitutional reforms.

Saied’s comments about previous dialogue sessions have even sparked unprecedented criticism from the UGTT which had previously endorsed the role of the president as an arbiter in any new round of national dialogue.

Tabboubi pushed back, Thursday, against Saied’s remarks, in which he described the previous dialogue sessions, including the one held in 2013, as being “neither national nor dialogues.”

The UGTT had taken part in the 2013 dialogue as part of a “Dialogue Quartet”, which also included the country’s business federation, the national bar association and the human rights league.

On 9 October 2015, the quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Much of the union’s resentment is likely due to the sharper connotation conveyed by Arabic equivalent of “Watani” in the term “Hiwar Watani” used in Arabic to mean national dialogue. “Watani” can mean both “national”, “nationalist” or “ptariotic”.

The UGTT denounced Thursday the statements by the president. It stressed that without the 2013 dialogue, “we would not have been able to avoid a civil war that was to shake the country after the assassinations that targeted political symbols, security and military troops and citizens.”

Saied mater denied his intention to question the patriotism or nationalism of any of the parties to the 2013 dialogue.

In a video recording posted Tuesday on the official page of the Presidency of the Republic, Saied said that he was “open to dialogue,” but rejected the idea that this dialogue should take place “the way previous dialogues were held”, or that it would be a “vain attempt to confer false legitimacy on traitors and crooks.”

The dialogue, he said, “will not take place the way previous dialogues were held.”

Some experts expressed their reservations about the president’s position and endorsed the unions’ viewpoint.

“Dialogue held after the assassination of leftist political figures Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi saved the country from the jaws of civil war and earned it a Nobel Peace Prize,” said a Tunisian political analyst.

Saied had advocated on Tuesday a dialogue on the creation of a new political system and amending the 2014 constitution, which he has described as a basic law “with locks everywhere.”

The Tunisian constitution, approved following the 2011 uprising and the fall of the Ben Ali regime, has been generally praised as a modernist document. But numerous politicians and Tunisian experts have admitted that it includes many ambiguous provisions and might need amending. More contentious has been the claim by a number of politicians and legal scholars that the country needs a shift from the predominantly parliamentary system in place today to a more presidential regime.

Such a viewpoint has been opposed by opponents of the presidential system, especially the Islamist Ennahda Movement.

— Change of system —

“Let us enter into a credible dialogue … to a new political system and a real constitution, because this constitution is based on putting locks everywhere and institutions cannot proceed with locks or deals,” Saied said during a meeting with current Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and three former prime ministers.

Hichem Mechichi, Prime Minister-designate of Tunisia, stands to deliver a speech to members of parliament as they hold session of confidence in the capital Tunis in September 2020. (AFP)
Hichem Mechichi, Prime Minister-designate of Tunisia, stands to deliver a speech to members of parliament as they hold session of confidence in the capital Tunis in September 2020. (AFP)

Commenting on Saied’s call for amending the 2014 constitution, university professor of constitutional law Salsabil Klibi said an amendment would not be possible in the absence of a Constitutional Court.

“Abandoning the constitution and proceeding, as proposed by the head of state, to a transitional model represents a danger for the country. Questions will arise about the legitimacy of the process. Then, the success of such a move is not guaranteed as there will be a need for a general consensus,” she explained.

Other analysts said the agenda of the dialogue should include the health and economic crises, not simply the constitutional and electoral systems.

Tabboubi Said Friday that Saied’s changed his mind after suggesting that four disputed members in the proposed reshuffle step down willingly so that the rest of the members of the cabinet be sworn in.

He called me later to say the prime minister should tender his resignation with his cabinet, ” said the trade union leader.

The president has for months blocked the swearing in of several members of government over suspicion of “corruption.”

Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi is backed by parliament speaker Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda Movement, over powers and political alliances.

He relies on the support of an Ennahda led MP coalition to govern.