Will Tunisia Be Able to Form a New Government?

Tunisia will see an important changing of the guard much quicker than many observers realize. Sunday's elections will create a Constituent Assembly, tasked with writing a new constitution. But most international coverage seems unaware that the Constituent Assembly will also have the power to immediately appoint a new government. The confusion and lack of clarity surrounding the Constituent Assembly’s mandate has some worried that October 23rd could create the opportunity for a massive power grab, depending on who wins and how they approach their new responsibility.

Understanding the role and scope of the Constituent Assembly requires tracing back its origins. The first announcement of a body to draft Tunisia’s new constitution was March 3rd of this year, when interim President Fouad Mebazaa, responding to popular protests, proposed elections for such a body to take place in July (afterwards postponed until October). Left undefined at the time were what powers the Assembly would have beyond laying the groundwork for Tunisia’s future government. A BBC article reporting the announcement states that the assembly “could either appoint a new government or ask the current executive to carry on.” What perhaps appeared as a bureaucratic detail at the time now looms large, as the assembly will soon indeed be designating new authorities, at whatever scale and with whatever process they deem fit.

Concern about the ambiguity of the scope of the assembly’s powers has mounted since the proposal of the body. In September, a group of political parties and media outlets made a public call for a referendum to restrict the assembly’s duration and legislative authority. The referendum was pre-empted, however, by a voluntary agreement signed among 11 major political parties limiting the body to one year of operation, but not restraining its authority. Additionally, party leaders may have signed the agreement, but it is not binding under any clear legal authority.

The same agreement stipulates that one of the first tasks of the Constituent Assembly will be to appoint a new head of government, who will form a new government to be appointed by the Assembly. The process is so far unspecific, leaving room for backroom negotiations. Through this unpredictable process, Tunisia will have a new president, prime minister, and government within the next few weeks.

One party that has advocated for a maximum of powers for the constituent assembly is the centrist Congress for the Republic (CPR in its French acronym). They were one of the few larger parties not to sign the mandate agreement, as they believed the assembly should be allowed to continue for as long as necessary.

“The current situation in Tunisia necessitates that the new government begin reforms at all levels to save this country. We cannot accomplish these reforms with a provisional government, and a government with a mandate of only one year is necessarily a provisional government,” said Sami Ben Amor, treasurer of the party.

Ben Amor went on to affirm that the Constituent Assembly should be allowed to last for a minimum of three years and that swift and decisive intervention in the executive branch of Tunisian government was imperative. Ben Amor took a strong line against the current interim government headed by Beji Caid Essebsi and Fouad Mebazaa, saying that he considered the administration to be “against the revolution.”

A Need for Consensus

The appointment of a new government could be a divisive issue for a country that is ideologically diverse, particularly concerning the relationship between Islam and the state. Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, took the largest plurality of votes in Sunday’s election. Throughout the electoral campaign, any signs of bias for or against the party drew a strong public reaction.

Mohamed Bennour, spokesman for Ettakatol, one of the largest secularist parties, described the predicament: “There are two possibilities, either we have the votes to govern without Ennahda, so Ennahda would find itself in the opposition, or it’s Ennahda who governs and we’re in the opposition. We have difficulty seeing how Tunisia could succeed in either of these scenarios. For us it’s in the national interest to say, ‘Alright, we’re going to make a government together for one year.’”

Ettakatol shares nothing of Ennahda’s views on the centrality of religion and Bennour wouldn’t go so far as to say he was proposing an alliance or coalition with the party. However, he was open to working together in some way. “It’s a compromise. It’s a consensus with a duration of one year. This consensus is necessary for the country to begin moving forward,” said Bennour.

Checks and Balances from the Street

Neither Bennour nor Ben Amor were afraid that the lack of legal definition of the constituent assembly’s powers would open the door to a bypassing of democracy. According to both men, Tunisians are too aware of past attempts to cheat the constitution of their country to accept any kind of overstepping of the assembly’s bounds.

As Ben Amor put it, “Tunisians will not accept a new dictator.”

According to interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, the establishment of the new government will not happen before November 9th, so as to allow time for any irregularities in the election to be properly sorted out. The first task of the assembly will be to elect its own president, only afterwards turning to the establishment of a transitional government.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This aritlce originally appeared on Tunisia Live.