Tunisia stands the Arab world’s best chance of creating a sustainable, homegrown democracy. At this stage in the country’s political transition, the central question is whether the country’s elites are sufficiently invested in the new constitutional order. The winners of the next presidential and parliamentary elections will have great power in setting precedents for the way politics will function in the “Second Republic.” Whoever the victors may be, they must work to cement the tradition of alternance—the peaceful transfer of power—that is both critical for democratic politics and largely absent from the Arab world.
The Process So Far
Thus far, Tunisia’s political transition has been successful because of a commitment to consensus and compromise. A broad spectrum of political elites has influenced the transition’s progress. The Ben Achour commission, the political-reform committee that first called for a new constitution, was largely led by secular law professors. Ennahdha, the moderate Islamic party, won a plurality of seats in the 2011 elections for the Constituent Assembly, which was charged with drafting a new constitution, and chose to form a coalition with Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic, two secular parties.
After a political crisis followed the assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi in 2013, President Moncef Marzouki called for a National Dialogue that brought together Ennahdha, the secular opposition led by Nidaa Tunis, and leaders of labor unions and human-rights groups. Among other results, the National Dialogue led to the resignation of Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh, an Ennahda member, in favor of technocrat, Mehdi Jomaa.
All the while, Ennahdha led a constitution-making process in which opposition members played a prominent role. The party ultimately abandoned its plans to push for a reference to Islamic sharia in the constitution and agreed to a strong president within a semi-presidential system, despite its strong preference for a parliamentary framework.
In the end, over 90 percent of assembly members approved Tunisia’s progressive constitution, an unanticipated majority and a testament to the compromising spirit of its members.
The New Constitutional Order
Within the assembly, the defining constitutional debate was over the distribution of executive powers. In the aftermath of decades of authoritarian rule, the question remains, however, how the new constitution can constrain the executive and create a balance of powers without resorting to religious or military domination?
As laid out in the constitution, Tunisia’s new government is a semi-presidential or mixed system, in which both prime minister and president wield significant powers. The prime minister is chosen by parliament and has authority over domestic policy and the appointment of most ministers. The president is directly elected and has authority over national security and foreign policy, including the appointment of defense and foreign ministers. The president has the option of chairing cabinet meetings and can veto legislation and dissolve parliament in limited circumstances.
The two roles are themselves strong enough that parties vying for meaningful political power and control will have to contest both parliamentary and presidential elections.
At the moment, the two most important political parties in Tunisia are Ennahdha and Nidaa Tunis. Ennahdha has suffered criticism during its leadership of the government, which began in November 2011, largely due to its failed or nonexistent domestic and economic-policy agenda. Rightly or not, Ennahdha has been blamed for rising unemployment (up to 40 percent in some regions) and a slowing economy (meager 2 percent growth in 2013). Ennahdha leaders hope, however, that the party’s leadership during the constitution-making process and its recent resignation from power will restore some of its lost public confidence.
Nidaa Tunis is the party of Beji Caib Essebsi, an 87-year-old former minister and speaker of parliament. Essebsi represents a return to the strong presidential secularism of the country’s iconic authoritarian leader Habib Bourguiba. While he formed his party in October 2012 and therefore did not run in the 2011 elections for the Constituent Assembly, Essebsi and his party have become very popular by positioning themselves in opposition to Ennahdha.
Polling data puts Nidaa Tunis and Ennahdha within a margin of error of each other with both receiving roughly 20 percent of the vote in a parliamentary race. In a head-to-head presidential election, Nidaa and Ennahdha are again in a dead heat, though over 30 percent of voters remain undecided. For these parties, the next election will be a battle for the third of Tunisians who do not fall firmly into either the secular or religious camp.
There is also a question about the presidential candidates each party will field. Essebsi has declared his intention to run, but an endorsement from his own party might be difficult to come by, given his age. Other leaders in the party, such as Tayyib Baccouche, have been mentioned as possible replacements.
The field of candidates for Ennahdha is more complicated. Rached Ghannouchi, the party’s president and spiritual leader, has said he will not run. Former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali gained popularity for resigning and calling for a technocratic government, but he lacks support within the party leadership. The other former prime minister, Ali Laarayedh, is seen as too conservative and unpalatable to undecided voters. Some in Ennahdha are considering an open primary, but that is unlikely as the party leadership will likely want to select a candidate itself. Ghannouchi suggested during a February 2014 trip to Washington that Ennahdha might not field a candidate at all, though other party leaders have said they fear setting the precedent that the president be from a secular party.
The electoral law, which is still to be adopted by the Constituent Assembly, will be an important tool for predicting election outcomes. The electoral system will likely resemble the one used in 2011, which made it difficult for one party to receive a majority of seats given the number of seats per district and the election formula used, which gives priority to smaller parties in assigning votes to seats.
It is not clear, however, whether presidential and parliamentary elections will be held around the same time or months or years apart. If held together, as in France, it is more likely that the president’s party will also take the lead in the governing coalition. If the elections are held separately, an American midterm effect is likely, whereby the leading party in parliament (and therefore that of the prime minister) will likely be different from the party of the president.
Divided Minority Government?
A divided minority government would come to power should the president and prime minister come from different parties, and neither of these parties have a majority in parliament. This situation, which has characterized many failed democratic transitions around the world, is recognized by political scientists as one of the most troubling for a democratic transition. Under this scenario, the two executive leaders typically remain at odds with each other, parliament fails to break the deadlock, and government eventually grinds to a halt.
The constitutional and electoral systems in Tunisia raise the risk of a divided minority government. According to the recently passed constitution, a new constitutional court is charged with resolving disputes between the prime minister and president, but this remedy is only helpful in direct conflicts between the two offices. Australia’s biggest constitutional crisis occurred when the majority party in parliament called on the president to resign, but did not have the power to kick him out directly. Parliament refused to pass a budget until the president stepped down, leaving the government incapacitated for over a year. As this example demonstrates, conflicts between parties in power are not always formal or easily resolved by courts.
Indeed, Tunisia’s constitution might encourage conflict, not compromise unless political parties commit themselves to working together out of altruism and not compulsion, regardless of electoral outcomes. There is reason for hope, however, as Essebsi said in March 2014 that Nidaa Tunis would be open to governing with Ennahdha should the parliamentary elections not produce a clear majority.
Conclusion: Is Tunisia a Model for the Region?
Tunisia’s constitution is the Arab world’s best shot in the modern era for creating a sustainable, democratic order. A commitment to compromise and the rule of law among all parties (at least, so far) certainly warrants praise and should be held up as an example for Yemen, Libya, and Egypt.
Now is not the time for euphoria, however. Tunisia’s new constitution is progressive and has the makings of a democratic governing order. But, given their own history, Tunisians know how quickly a decent constitutional system can be overridden, as Habib Bourguiba did through quick constitutional amendments after taking office in 1957. The victors in the next elections will have to commit themselves to principles of compromise to set the right precedents under the country’s new political system.
This is why the question of elite agreement is so important: political leaders have to believe their chance of wielding power after the next elections is greater than zero, that they will be better off investing in the system rather than trying to grab power and keep it. Tunisia will continue to be a model if it is able to secure the tradition of alternance through several electoral cycles.