Tunisia Islamists jockey to limit president’s powers in election law

Many attribute the current crisis in the country to the quasi-parliamentary political system, which does not clearly specify the powers of the three authorities: the president, the parliament and the prime minister.
Friday 30/04/2021
A file photo shows members of the Ennahda Islamist bloc attending a parliamentary session. (AFP)
A file photo shows members of the Ennahda Islamist bloc attending a parliamentary session. (AFP)

TUNIS – The political dispute, pitting Ennahda Islamist Movement against Tunisian President Kais Saied, is set to heat up in the next few days, with the Islamist party embarking on a new manoeuvre to limit the constitutional powers of the presidency.

Parliamentary sources said members of the Islamist party’s parliamentary bloc had submitted a new bill to amend the electoral law. The bill, the sources said, included a set of proposals aimed primarily at revoking the president’s special prerogative that allows him to call elections or referenda.

Ennahda’s most recent provocative move will likely exacerbate the political tensions in the country and add to the mounting woes of both the public and the political class.  The parliamentary sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, revealed the bill was submitted on April 20 amid a media blackout.

The text of this bill, of which The Arab Weekly obtained a copy, mentioned a proposal to amend Article 101 of the Electoral Law, which states, “the summoning of voters is carried out by presidential decree within a minimum deadline of three months before the day of the poll for the legislative, regional, municipal and presidential elections and a minimum deadline of two months before the day of the poll for a referendum.”

In the draft law, Ennahda wants to amend the text of this chapter so as to make it read, “the convocation of voters is carried out by a government decree within a minimum deadline of three months before the day of the poll for the legislative, regional, municipal and presidential elections; a minimum deadline of two months before the day of the poll for a referendum and a minimum deadline of one month before the day of a poll for premature or partial elections.”

The proposed formula shows Ennahda is trying to block any attempt by the president to call for early elections, or to announce a referendum.

By doing so, the Islamist movement hopes to revoke one of Saied’s powers and to grant it to the prime minister, thus stripping the president of a key trump card that he might resort to if he wishes to change the current political balance.

Ennahda is particularly concerned about a call for a referendum on the constitution to amend the current political system, experts say.

Many attribute the current crisis in the country to the quasi-parliamentary political system, which does not clearly specify the powers of the three authorities: the president, the parliament and the prime minister.

“It is clear from the text of the bill on Article 101 of the electoral law that Ennahda is escalating the political dispute. It is a project that aims at reducing the powers and authority of the president when it comes to holding elections, in general,” MP Mabrouk Korchid told The Arab Weekly.

He considered that this move sends a new message to Saied.

“It is rather a political message because Ennahda clearly knows that this bill will not get through. It would either be rejected by MPs or left ineffective when the president refuses to sign it,” Korchid asserted.

He pointed out that “the purpose of the bill is to further challenge President Saied, with Ennahda hoping to bring him to the negotiating table.”

Korchid noted that Islamists have been pressuring the president with campaigns against his person and threats to remove Saied over “a grave mistake.”

“We are witnessing a new political row with law being its weapon and parliament serving as its battleground,” the Tunisian MP said.

Secretary-General of the People’s Movement (16 parliamentary seats) Zouhair Maghzaoui had earlier told a local radio that there “is a political battle between two camps and on two major fronts.”

He stressed that “the matter is not related to the constitution, although the pretext for this battle has been the constitution. It is rather a political battle, pitting social and national forces against political Islam groups. The camp of political Islam is led by the Ennahda movement and its allies who are mainly loyal to foreign parties with an adherence to formal democracy and a commitment to an ailing democratic transition. On the other hand, the social and national forces are still holding on to the achievement of the revolution’s goals and demands.”

Maghzaoui noted the dispute started between Ennahda and Saied, when the latter refused to adhere to the Muslim Brotherhood axis during a visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Tunisia at the end of December 2019.

Maghzaoui went on to say that Ennahda’s recent moves and statements show the Islamists are “terrified” because “their calculations after the 2019 elections proved wrong.”

Ennahda, he said, wanted a weak prime minister, whom its leader Rached Ghannouchi could control. The Islamists also wanted a president, whom they can keep in check, Maghzaoui added.