The future of Tunisia’s political system is serving as a lightening rod for debate as members of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) draft the nation’s constitution.
During its 5th constitutional reform seminar, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (Int’l IDEA) discussed potential future political systems in Tunisia, mainly focusing on the current semi-presidential system adopted by the ruling Troika – comprising Ennahdha, Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol.
The constitutional draft as it stands does not define Tunisia’s political system. But it touches upon the separation of powers, specifying different possibilities for the prerogatives of the president, the prime minister, and the parliament.
“We all agree that the political system we have and want is a modified-parliamentary one, not a semi-presidential one,” said legal expert and former head of Tunisia’s Higher Political Reform Council Yadh Ben Achour. “But we need to have a clear political philosophy that will govern our choices.”
NCA representatives at the conference agreed that the NCA avoided naming Tunisia’s political system in the constitutional draft. Given that the current system is already a mixed one without precedent, the drafters chose to focus on powers within the executive and legislative branches and the relationship between them. Attendees argued that a modified parliamentary system reflects a political agreement that aims at accommodating the interests of the ruling Troika.
“We are not here to provide official recommendations, but rather options. The NCA members are reacting, and we see progress,” said Zaid Al Ali, senior adviser on constitution building for Int’l IDEA.
Sujit Choudhry from the Constitutional Center at New York University (NYU) School of Law explained that implementing a mixed political system might cause problems if the checks are not sufficient. “Constraints are built to limit danger,” he added.
Some of the concerns raised by panel experts centered on how much power should be granted to Tunisia’s future president and parliament. Ben Achour suggested that Tunisians, looking to break away from its authoritarian past, have gotten carried away in their calls for limited presidential powers.
“We’re exaggerating. We shouldn’t be too guarded,” he said.
Choudhry said that Tunisians are heading towards a semi-presidential system. According to him, it is safer to have a president, who has less power than a prime minister. But if the president is powerful, the system tends to be unstable and might collapse, Choudhry argued.
“That doesn’t mean that the president has a symbolic role. The president is elected directly by the people,” he said.
When addressing such concerns, some solutions were suggested. Ben Achour argued that potential violations to presidential power should be solved through a constitutional court. “We have to use tools that are simple and efficient and avoid complicated ones,” he added.
Moreover, Richard Stacey from NYU’s Constitutional Center explained that the legislative branch, which is the parliament, ought to be proactive in the deliberation of balance-of-power disputes among the different branches.
Additionally, another pressing question was raised: why is it taking this long to write the new Constitution?
Choudhry said that having unrealistic timelines creates unnecessary pressure that cannot be helpful.
“Don’t forget what Tunisia has been through. These things take time.. They [members of the NCA] are getting to know each other and negotiate with each other… People shouldn’t worry that it’s not done yet. I’m sure you’ll get through this,” he said.
The lively debate ended on an optimistic note. “The ongoing debate is a healthy sign,” Choudhry said.