Nearly four months after Tunisia elected a corps of delegates to write the country’s new constitution, these representatives are no closer to reaching agreement on one of the most fundamental tenets of such a document: what form of government will define Tunisia’s future?
The process of drafting the new Tunisian constitution will begin on February 14, 2012. The committee of the Constituent Assembly charged with drafting the constitution is chaired by the head of the Constituent Assembly itself, Mustapha Ben Jaafar of the center-left Ettakatol party. Habib Khedr, a member of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, has been elected as the general rapporteur, a position whose duties nearly make it the administrative equal of the committee chair.
Since before the elections, lines have been drawn in the sand by the various political parties. Ennahda’ representatives have made its support of a parliamentary system clear. The other major parties forming the ruling coalition with Ennahda – the secular Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol parties – are determined to adopt a semi-presidential system, with most smaller parties falling in line.
The reasoning seems clear enough – Ennahda seeks to utilize its popular majority in the election of an executive. However, the opposition parties hope a separation of powers will maintain a check on the popular Islamist party’s authority.
The interim Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali made a statement a few days ago in the Tunisian newspaper Le Temps, affirming that in case no consensus is reached in the constitution Committee, the ultimate option would be a general vote of the Assembly.
Opposition parties perceive an obvious threat in a recourse to a vote as well – as Ennahda needs only 20 votes in addition to their 89 seats to obtain a majority. Consequently, Ennahda could impose its political choice through vote. CPR and Ettakatol have thus been looking to collaborate with those political parties that share its vision concerning the future framework of the Tunisian Government.
Mabrouka Mbarek, a CPR deputy, confirmed that her party is not constrained by its coalition with Ennahda and Ettakatol from forming alliances with other parties over the separation of powers issue . “We no longer talk about a troika [the ruling tripartite coalition] when it comes to drafting a constitution – a supreme text, that is going to be considered and abided by for years to come,” said Mbarek.
Mbarek reiterated that her party believes in a mixed, or parliamentary-presidential, system, and that the party is actively looking to attract others to their cause.
“We will absolutely try to convince as many independent deputies as possible to join our position, so that we can outnumber Ennahda if a vote is suggested as a final alternative. Ennahda usually votes as a bloc so it is almost impossible to have coerce Ennahda members to cross party-lines,” she added.
Ettakatol, the third member of the “troika,” has also endorsed the notion of a presidential system. Lobna Jeribi, one of Ettakatol’s deputies confirmed her party’s belief in the need for a separate executive branch, saying, “The fundamental issue is going to be the prerogatives that the president will have.”
Non-coalition parties predominantly share the sentiment that some form independent presidential system is necessary. Mouldi El Fehem, the head of the executive bureau of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) – a secular party whose results in the elections fell well below expectations – was vehement in rejecting a parliamentary system, and pulled no punches when describing Ennahda’s motivations for holding the opposite position.
“The elections were held to draft a constitution and not to conspire to get to power. National interest should top all political parties’ agendas,” said El Fehem.
Selma Baccar of the Democratic Modernist Pole (PDM), shares a belief in a separate executive power, but holds a more generous view of Ennahda’s politics. She does not believe that the party would impose its strategy at any cost, and said she even expects them to opt for a compromise.
“I have recently had a personal conversation with Habib Khedr, the newly-elected general rapporteur. He said in clear terms that Ennahda might modify its strategy as far as the political regime is concerned,” she stated.
On the opposite side of the debate, Ennahda does not seem to reject the potential for compromise. Nour Eldine Elharbaoui – Ennahda’s spokesman – expressed that the party was open to reconsidering its stance, saying, “There is no position that cannot be altered.”
“We have our own conviction that will serve as a starting point for the first discussion session…This is not a black or white issue. The Ennahda movement is always open for negotiations,” he added.
Finally, if no common ground can be attained from a general vote, a third possibility may present itself: a national referendum. According to Dr. Sadok Bel Aid, former dean of the Faculty of Law at the Free University of Tunis, a referendum is probable only if a final consensus was repeatedly unable to be reached and if voting was thought to be too divisive.
Concerning the option of voting, Bel Aid said that it would certainly benefit Ennahda – as the process of voting had previously afforded Ennahda the ability to use its majority to break legislative deadlocks in the Constituent Assembly.
“Ennahda has been blackmailing the assembly so far. If the other political parties do not agree on their [Ennahda's] choices, they resort to vote,” he said.
However, Bel Aid believes that the strategy of putting the issue to a vote may backfire for the Islamist party, as it jeopardizes the equilibrium on the Tunisian political scene.
“Playing alone on the pitch is not wise behavior. Ennahda will be obliged to achieve a compromise with the other political parties as far as the semi-presidential system is concerned,” he said.
Bel Aid stated his belief that Ennahda should take time to review its strategy.
“Today, the only possible way out is through discussion,” he concluded.
Mischa Benoit-Lavelle contributed writing to this article.