On July 25, precisely one 12 months after Tunisia’s maverick President Kais Saied sacked the prime minister, dissolved the parliament, suspended the much-celebrated 2014 structure and began to rule by decree, Tunisians voted to approve a draft structure proposed by him that critics warn will assist entrench his one-man rule.
With lower than 30 p.c turnout, there are critical questions in regards to the legitimacy of Monday’s referendum. However, the deep divisions inside the opposition and the general public’s ever-growing disillusionment with the political system imply Saied might face little resistance as he strikes to additional consolidate his energy.
Now, as they watch with fear Tunisia’s democratic backsliding recognized by the Worldwide Institute for Democracy and Electoral Help, many are questioning what the worldwide neighborhood, and particularly the African Union (AU) – which counts amongst its aims selling “democratic rules and establishments” on the continent – might have accomplished and might nonetheless do to maintain the North African nation on the trail in direction of true democracy.
A mute African Union
All through the previous 12 months, as President Saied sacked judges, jailed opposition politicians and stifled public debate on the drafting of the brand new structure, the AU selected to stay silent. Certainly, after the president’s July 25, 2021 energy seize, the continental union launched just one transient and imprecise assertion on the state of affairs in Tunisia, expressing its dedication to the “Tunisian structure”, “promotion of political dialogue” and “the necessity to reply to the legit aspirations of the Tunisian individuals”.
The truth is, in February 2022, it signalled that it’s principally unconcerned with President Saied’s actions by making the nation a member of the AU Peace and Safety Council – a strong physique charged with, amongst different issues, monitoring compliance with constitutionalism and responding to unconstitutional modifications of presidency.
It appears the AU opted to not prioritise Tunisia’s regarding, however thus far fortunately non-violent, democratic backsliding and as an alternative centered its meagre assets on international locations which are experiencing grave political instability, financial devastation and battle.
However this was undoubtedly a mistake. The truth that Tunisia remains to be comparatively secure in contrast with many different nations on the continent doesn’t imply its drift away from AU’s declared democratic requirements must be ignored.
The AU ought to have a minimum of sought to interact Tunisian authorities, the opposition and civil society teams, to make sure compliance with the precept of nationwide consensus in constitutional reform processes established within the African Constitution for Democracy, Elections and Governance – an instrument Tunisia signed that displays established AU requirements on constitutionalism.
By intervening in Tunisia’s a lot criticised constitutional reform course of, the AU might have proven that it’s treating all member international locations equally and addressed criticisms of hypocrisy which have lengthy been undermining its credibility. Moreover, by holding Saied to account for his try and rewrite the structure by way of doubtful practices, it might have demonstrated that it’s certainly critical about upholding continental requirements for constitutional change.
The continental requirements for constitutional change require (1) legality and compliance with the letter and spirit of constitutional guidelines for reform, (2) a genuinely consultative and participatory course of, together with, presumably, a referendum, (3) a free and secure political surroundings, and (4) a deliberative course of that eschews unilateral selections and as an alternative necessitates inclusion past a single dominant individual or political group.
In Tunisia, Saied merely disregarded the processes of reform outlined within the 2014 structure and unilaterally adopted his personal course of, which allowed him to keep away from any stringent necessities for the referendum, as an example, within the type of a minimal turnout requirement.
Furthermore, regardless of purported efforts to permit Tunisians to submit their views, the method didn’t contain real participation and deliberation. Energetic AU monitoring and diplomatic engagement and a suggestion to offer comparative recommendation and technical assist might probably have contributed to making sure a genuinely participatory and deliberative course of.
The AU has but once more squandered a possibility to outline itself as a union of guidelines, relatively than merely a membership of incumbents.
One other African president for all times?
Along with probably legitimising one-man rule, Tunisia’s new draft structure might set the stage for a president for all times. Whereas the structure establishes a two-term restrict on presidents, it doesn’t make clear whether or not Saied’s present time period would rely, or whether or not he can be entitled to 2 extra phrases, probably enabling him to remain in energy till 2035.
Furthermore, the structure permits the president to increase his time period in circumstances of “imminent hazard”, which the president could have the authority to outline, with virtually no or restricted legislative or judicial test on such dedication.
Saied’s observe file thus far and his proclivity to raise his private imaginative and prescient over the phrases and spirit of the structure imply Tunisians might now be bracing for a possible president for all times.
However the AU can nonetheless take motion to stop this state of affairs.
It will probably have interaction Tunisian authorities to make clear their place and strain them to verify that the brand new structure wouldn’t reset the presidential time period rely. As a member of the AU Peace and Safety Council, Tunisia has a heightened ethical duty to uphold the spirit of alternation of energy imbued in continental requirements.
All is probably not misplaced
Past the focus of energy within the workplace of the president, probably the most defining side of Tunisia’s new structure is maybe its minimalism. The textual content outlines a authorities structure however leaves particulars for additional legislative regulation.
What’s neglected consists of essential particulars concerning the organisation and mandate of the second legislative chamber and its relations with the primary chamber, the electoral fee, the judiciary, the judicial council, and the constitutional court docket.
The brand new parliament, which is because of be elected in December, will subsequently have super potential to form the organisation of those important our bodies and to preclude the president’s grip on their independence. This implies the upcoming legislative election might present an essential alternative for Saied’s opponents to restrict his consolidation of energy – and put the breaks on his perceived efforts to entrench one-man rule within the nation. Certainly, if opposition events handle to rally the supermajority that boycotted the constitutional referendum and translate that into legislative seats, it might permit them to mood the personalisation of energy.
Given the overwhelming variety of voters who boycotted the constitutional referendum, it’s unlikely for Saied to safe within the December elections the parliamentary majority he wants to totally codify a one-man rule.
This implies the AU can nonetheless transfer to assist put a cease to Tunisia’s democratic backsliding. It will probably supply technical assist to all events and allow the newly elected legislature to advance democratic targets because it passes the various legal guidelines wanted to operationalise the brand new structure. It will probably additionally insist that the brand new Tunisian authorities complies with continental requirements concerning rules of separation of powers and efficient and autonomous courts and different democracy promotion establishments.
The AU has a authorized and ethical duty to cut back the prospects of instability and insecurity in Tunisia. By standing up for democracy and rule of regulation in Tunisia, the continental physique wouldn’t solely assist Tunisians maintain the democratic features they made up to now decade, but in addition present all the continent that it’s certainly critical about holding its members to the requirements of constitutionalism it set.
The views expressed on this article are the creator’s personal and don’t essentially replicate Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.