Tunisian democracy is under pressure – Democracy and Society
For a long time, Tunisia was considered the only successful democratic model to emerge from the “Arab Spring”. Since 2011, three legislative elections and two presidential elections have taken place, and the country has a liberal constitution and institutions. But unfortunately, Tunisia has been facing an unprecedented crisis for several months which casts doubts on the future stability of the country.
Starting with a power struggle provoked by the 2019 elections. On one side stands Kais Saied, a president elected by an overwhelming majority but with few powers, and on the other the Tunisian Parliament, controlled by a coalition led by the Islamists Ennahda party, which has dominated political life until now. These two sides engaged in a fierce exchange of blows for two years before the president finally resorted to what is known in political science as a autogolpe (self-coup), in which an elected president seizes all power – rather than, say, the military overthrowing the government.
The power struggle gone wrong
On July 25, 2021, the anniversary of the founding of the republic in 1957, the president dismisses the head of government and suspends parliament before dissolving it definitively. On September 22, he suspended the 2014 constitution, the fruit of three years of public deliberation. He claimed absolute power and decreed that his actions could not be challenged in any court. He based all this on article 80 of the constitution, which allows him to take extraordinary measures in the event of a direct and immediate threat. However, the House of Representatives must be in permanent session for the duration of these measures and cannot be dissolved.
In the Tunisian media, some jurists justify the actions of the president with a famous phrase from Schmitt’s Political theology: ‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.’
Clearly, the President has gone well beyond what Carl Schmitt, in Dictatorship in 1921, called a “commissar dictatorship”, in which a president delegated power to a commissioner for a limited time, like a Roman dictator. Here, Schmitt refers to Article 48, paragraph 2 of the Weimar Constitution, which is in some respects the equivalent of Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution. Even in the Tunisian media, some jurists justify the actions of the president with a famous phrase from Schmitt’s Political theology: ‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.’ Saied, however, is not sovereign. His power was conferred on him by the Constitution
It must be said that the first measures taken on July 25 were initially welcomed with relief. Tunisians had previously been forced to watch helplessly as clashes broke out in parliament, which Saied falsely equated with a “direct and immediate threat”. The early elections failed because of the Islamist party, which had set draconian conditions for the dissolution of parliament. The vast majority of Tunisians, however, were angry mainly because of the dire economic situation, blamed on the Islamo-secular coalition. The coalition had in the first place enabled the Islamists to integrate into the democratic structure and to make themselves indispensable, since the coalition was dependent on the votes of the Ennahda.
A man against his people
Saied is a populist whose political career is based on a slogan from the 2011 revolution: The people want! – The people want! As the only real electoral program, it proposes, as an alternative to representative democracy, the introduction of councils at local, regional and national levels. He constantly describes his adversaries as enemies of the people, as plotting traitors, as foreign minions and as “vermin” who must be crushed. He declared war on political parties. He excluded them from the “national dialogue” to create a “new republic” modeled on the State Novo Brazilian Vargas in 1937.
To that end, he organized a referendum, using a digital platform that turned out to be a complete fiasco. Over a period of more than two months (January to March 2022), less than 10% of Tunisians completed the online form. But the tenacious Saied was not deterred. He has announced a constitutional referendum for July 25 (his preferred date), with no information on the content available at this time. The early legislative elections of December 17, 2022 are intended to complete the new era.
Repeated calls from US and EU institutions to engage in inclusive dialogue and return to democratic government are falling on deaf ears with Saied.
Meanwhile, Saied secured the loyalty of the Independent Supreme Electoral Authority by appointing the new steering committee, whose members were elected by parliament, and expressed doubts about the usefulness of international election observers. In early May, he issued a decree dismissing 57 judges, who now face criminal charges. The judges were dismissed for “concealment of terrorist activities”, “corruption”, “sexual harassment”, “collusion” with political parties and “disruption of the functioning of the judicial system”.
Saied tries to go it alone. Most political parties and civil society organizations are calling for a boycott of the upcoming elections. And repeated calls from US and European institutions to engage in inclusive dialogue and return to democratic government are falling on deaf ears with Saied.
The president is opposed by two blocs. One bloc – “National Salvation” – is made up of an Islamic-secular coalition under the leadership of Ahmed Néjib Chebbi, one of the leading figures in the history of democratic resistance. The other block is made up of a “coordination” of secular and social-democratic parties that reject the Islamists and the dictatorship. Tunisians are desperately concerned about the deterioration of their living conditions. The economic situation is universally regarded as catastrophic. The International Monetary Fund is reluctant to hand over its vital aid – nearly 6 billion euros – because it is fed up with broken promises to carry out real reforms. It is very likely that the fate of Tunisian democracy will be played out in the coming months. Although what that will be is hard to predict at the moment.