Tunis, Tunisia – Tunisia’s political crisis intensified following President Kais Saied’s decision to dissolve parliament after freezing it during a July 25 last year power grab.
The decree came on Wednesday just hours after members of the final chamber held an online plenary session and voted to end its exceptional measures, which included the suspension of the chamber and the dismissal of the Prime Minister, as well as seizure of legislative and judicial powers. powers.
The president also promised that lawmakers who opposed presidential decisions during the virtual meeting would be prosecuted on serious charges of “conspiring against state security.”
The Tunisian Minister of Justice has opened a judicial investigation against more than half of the members of the now dissolved parliament who participated in the online session.
No less than 121 out of 216 of them were summoned for questioning by an anti-terrorist unit on Friday. The mass investigation marked a major escalation in the president’s targeting of his opponents who have openly defied his attempts to remake the political system in what they call a coup.
“Kais Saied planned long before last July to seize sweeping powers, sideline political parties and change the system,” a Democratic activist who chose to use an alias, ‘Haythem’, told Al Jazeera. . “He just suspended parliament then so as not to pass his intervention off as a coup.”
The center-left supporter noted how the head of state has over time lost the trust of educated segments of Tunisian society and major parties, while he continues to enjoy popular support.
“Governing and Legislating by Decree”
Many Tunisians hailed the actions taken by Saied, who deemed them necessary to save the country from a corrupt and selfish elite he held responsible for years of political paralysis and economic stagnation.
To date, the president has failed to take concrete steps to tackle needed reforms as he has taken steps that have sparked accusations that he is steering the country back to one-man rule.
“It is gradually dismantling the institutions created since 2011, destroying all the checks and balances in the country,” Haythem argued. “Most MPs now believe he has no intention of restoring the democratic rule of law.”
Radwan Masmoudi, a member of the moderate Islamist Ennahdha party, observed that Saied had not dissolved the chamber in July, knowing he had no constitutional right to do so.
Wednesday’s parliamentary vote, he continued, offered the head of state a chance to intervene, while being aware that it was still unconstitutional to order a dissolution, emboldened by a number of decrees presidential elections that he used to assume near-total power.
Masmoudi specifically alluded to Decree 117, issued last September, which suspended most of the country’s constitution, extended the parliament freeze and granted the head of state the right to rule and legislate by decree.
“Tunisia is in no-man’s territory right now. We are without a constitution and have a president who can do whatever he wants,” the Ennahdha member told Al Jazeera.
Sarah Ben Hamadi, a Tunisian political watcher and Twitter influencer, thinks the president could have ended parliament following his July 25 “coup” instead of eight months later and initiated a democratic process to hold legislative elections.
“Saied has a very personal reading of the constitution and applies his own interpretation of the text,” she told Al Jazeera. “He’s also very unpredictable so we can’t really anticipate his decisions, we don’t know what to expect.”
The dissolution of the assembly
Under Article 80 of Tunisia’s 2014 constitution, Saied cannot dissolve parliament during an exceptional period like the one he announced last year.
Even article 72, invoked by the Head of State, does not allow him to do so. The dissolution of the assembly can only take place if the majority of the deputies vote twice for a motion of no confidence in the government, and must provoke a new election within 90 days as stipulated in article 89.
Despite the dissolution of the Legislative Assembly, Saied ruled out Thursday night legislative elections within the next three months. Instead, he said, he will propose to rewrite the constitution, which will be put to a referendum on July 25, before holding elections on December 17 – in line with the political roadmap unveiled last December. – while suggesting that opposition politicians may not be allowed. stand in the next polls.
“Legally, since it is dissolved, the parliament must remain in session until a new vote takes place within the 90-day period,” said Ennahdha MP Masmoudi, calling the president’s latest decision further violation of the constitution.
He also indicated the possibility that the next constitutional referendum and the legislative elections will be organized under the supervision of the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Defence. It is unclear whether they will be organized by an independent body. Many fear that Saied could dissolve the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) and establish a provisional electoral commission to oversee the upcoming elections. However, no official statement has been released about it so far.
Parties from across Tunisia’s political spectrum and the powerful UGTT union have urged the head of state to call early elections after the dissolution of parliament.
More and more political parties actively opposed Saied. Ennahdha, the largest party in parliament and the main opposition force, and the Free Constitutional Party, which is leading in opinion polls, said they would reject his plans for the July referendum.
“The danger is that Saied wants to push through his own constitution, under the guise of a national referendum, change the rules of the game, drive out his opponents and push through his planned elections,” Haythem warned.
“We are watching a program of a deaf man. The only hope is to have early elections,” he stressed.
Intimidation and persecution against opposition figures
Without an elected and functioning parliament in place, and in the current climate of intimidation and persecution against the country’s main opposition figures, any national vote will take place outside the framework of the rule of law, analysts say. . That means Tunisians are unlikely to see free or fair elections under current conditions, they say.
Monica Marks, a leading expert on contemporary Tunisian politics, explained in a tweet thread how critical election sequencing is.
“If Saied wins his referendum before the legislative elections, it is entirely possible that new free and fair parliamentary elections will not take place in Tunisia,” she posted. “While if everyone firmly rallies behind the demand to hold new elections within 90 days, it is possible that an off-ramp from the Saied highway to a consolidated dictatorship in Tunisia could materialize.”
For Ben Hamadi, the referendum scheduled for July, called to restructure the political system, will find the sympathy of a population largely unhappy with the deadlocked political establishment.
“I believe the president is well aware that there is a popular will to move to a presidential system of government,” the observer commented, referring to recent national surveys and social media interactions in the country.
The results of Tunisia’s online public consultation on a new constitution showed that more than 86% of respondents favor a presidential system instead of the current quasi-parliamentary system.
Yet as the government desperately seeks an international bailout to avert a fiscal crisis and the economic pain mounts for the people, many Tunisians have also become disenchanted with Saied’s emphasis on constitutional change.
Its popularity could be tested, as analysts have warned, with soaring oil and wheat prices due to the Russian-Ukrainian war amid a dire economic crisis and rising prices foodstuffs.