Tunisia – Update on the Constituent Assembly

Until the Jasmine Revolution in 2011, Tunisia was constitutionally semi-presidential, even if the democratic underpinnings of the regime were extremely poor. Following the uprising, the constitution was suspended. A Constituent Assembly was elected in October 2011. This Assembly is drafting a new constitution.

One of the big debates in the Assembly is whether to adopt a semi-presidential system. The Venice Commission has just posted its summary of the July debates in the Assembly. It is available in French here.

The summary says that the parliamentary nature of the regime is a given, meaning, I assume, that the prime minister and cabinet will be responsible to the legislature. However, it also reports that the issue of the direct election of the president has not been decided. The stated aim of the parties is to avoid a system where one party has all the power. For some, the direct election of the president is a guarantee that power will not be concentrated in one body. The idea is that the president will play the role of arbiter.

It is well known that the Ennahda Movement is opposed to semi-presidentialism. The proponents of a directly elected president are the opposition. Presumably, they believe that one of their number would be elected president and would be able to check an Ennahda Movement majority in a future parliament.

But this is a big gamble. If one party (or force) is strong enough to be majoritarian in parliament – presumably the Ennahda Movement – then wouldn’t the president most likely be from this movement too? If so, why would the president be an arbiter? Wouldn’t the president just support the government, like in Turkey, or maybe the president would become the main institution, like in France?

By itself, the Ennahda Movement cannot dictate the constitution. It has to compromise. It may prefer to see some of its preferred social issues written into the constitution and may be willing to give up on a directly elected president in return. However, in so doing, it may actually increase its chances of holding the presidency and reduce the likelihood of the president acting as an arbiter.

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