Tunisia's Kais Saied reveals draft of new constitution with sweeping changes to government

New document enshrines a presidential system and introduces new legislative body

Tunisians will vote in a referendum on July 25 for a new constitution
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Tunisia's President Kais Saied revealed on Thursday the proposed draft of a new constitution, which will be put to a referendum vote on July 25.

The new document, released in the official gazette, makes sweeping changes to Tunisia's governmental structure as it enshrines a purely presidential system that gives greater powers to the executive and introduces a new legislative body, the National Council of Regions and Districts.

If approved by popular vote, the document will replace Tunisia's historic 2014 constitution, composed over two years of negotiations in a constituent assembly and national dialogue after the 2011 revolution that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from his 23-year rule over the country.

Overhauling the 2014 constitution has been a primary focus for Mr Saied, a former adjunct constitutional law professor, who says it is a “course correction of the revolutionary path”.

After two years in the presidency, Mr Saied seized sole control of the government last July during a Covid crisis and dysfunction in Parliament.

He has since made moves to consolidate power in his own hands, including dissolving Parliament, suspending the constitution and reappointing the high judicial council and the independent electoral commission.

The proposed new constitution further strengthens the role of the president, who would alone control the executive branch, and would appoint a first minister to assist him — a shift from the current power-sharing structure between the president, prime minister and speaker of Parliament.

Ibrahim Bouderbela, a member of the committee that drafted the new document, told The National that the new system would enable greater accountability in government.

“In past governments, political parties that were elected did not assume responsibility for their actions. In the new system, the president will be at the head of the government and assume responsibility in failure and success alike,” he said.

The document also introduces a new legislative body, the National Council of Regions and Districts, which would work alongside Parliament to approve or reject proposed legislation put forward by the president.

The council would comprise members appointed from a series of larger, local councils, a long-time political vision of Mr Saied.

“Through this constitution, the Tunisian people will find themselves included in the decision-making process in the country,” Mr Bouderbela said.

The new document was drafted over the course of about three weeks in May and June by a small committee of legal scholars selected by Mr Saied.

Several key players, including the General Tunisian Labour Union (UGTT) — part of the quartet that won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for their role in salvaging the 2014 constitution — and the association of deans of the law schools, rejected their appointment to the constitutional advisory committee, saying the dialogue was not inclusive.

“We reject any formal dialogue in which roles are determined unilaterally and from which civil and political forces are excluded,” UGTT spokesman Sami Tahri said.

Earlier this year, a “digital consultation” to inform the constitution-writing process, which surveyed Tunisians about their opinions on social, political and economic issues, attracted a paltry turnout.

“The future of Tunisia is in the hands of Tunisians and it is their intensive participation that will pave the way towards a new stage in the history of Tunisia based on the real popular will and not on fake legitimacy,” Mr Saied said in January at the consultation’s launch.

Less than 7 per cent of eligible voters participated.

Opposition to Mr Saied and his proposed constitution has grown in recent months. Many political parties are calling for a boycott of the referendum in hopes of stripping it of its legitimacy.

The outcome of the vote, regardless of turnout, will be legally binding.

Mr Bouderbela said: “In order to secure legitimacy, I believe we'd need to see at least half of eligible voters participate.”

The Independent High Electoral Commission reported that 9.2 million voters have been registered in an election that is set to cost 50 million Tunisian dinars ($16.2 million).

The proposed constitution and the referendum to ratify it come as Tunisia's economy continues a downwards spiral, with inflation and prices of consumer goods rising, purchasing power on the decline and state finances in ruins.

Last week, the International Monetary Fund said it would enter formal negotiations with Tunisia over a multibillion-dollar loan that could temporarily shore up the country's faltering foreign currency reserves and help it pay off its debts.

To secure the loan, Mr Saied's government has put forward a plan that would slash subsidies for food and fuel, trim the public sector wage bill, and privatise loss-making state-owned enterprises.

Rejection of the terms of the IMF deal has been widespread. A nationwide strike of hundreds of thousands of public sector workers on June 16 grounded flights, stalled public transport and closed government offices. The UGTT has called for a second strike in the coming days.

Updated: June 30, 2022, 10:19 PM