Tunisia: The Ballot Box Obsession

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The draw for the election lists of Constituent Assembly candidates in Tunis. (Photo: AFP - Salah Habibi)

By: Ghassen Ben Khelifa

Published Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The battle for Tunisia’s future has boiled down to a heated confrontation over the right step towards political reform: voting in a national constitutional assembly or voting on a proposed draft constitution.

On June 1, the anniversary of “Victory Day” commemorating the 1959 Tunisian constitution, political actors associated with the former ruling party under Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba, came together to demand the cancellation of the upcoming National Constituent Assembly elections on October 23, proposing a referendum on a draft constitution instead.

That was the first attempt to revoke the demand for a Constituent Assembly election, that was later granted after a sit-in by thousands of Tunisians in al-Qasba Square last February. The sit-in was supported and organized by political forces from different backgrounds, in addition to the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the National Lawyers’ Board, and other organizations.

At the time, Mohsen Marzouk, regional director of the controversial US organization Freedom House in North Africa and the Arab Foundation for Democracy, called for limiting the powers of the Constituent Assembly to drafting the constitution within a period of months. This would be followed by a referendum on the new constitution and preparation for presidential and legislative elections. In the meantime, the existing transitional team would continue its duties.

This means that Interim President Fouad Mebazaa and Prime Minister Beji Caid el Sebsi, both previous heads of parliament under Ben Ali, will remain throughout the term of the Constituent Assembly. The assembly’s only task would be to draft a new constitution and not get involved in governing the country. This contradicts what the political parties represented in the High Commission for the Realization of the Revolutionary Goals, Political Reform, and Democratic Transition agreed upon. In particular, it violates an agreement between the leaders of the UGTT and Caid el Sebsi, that his government's term, along with that of the president, will end with the Constituent Assembly elections.

Barely a week later, the old guard returned with a similar initiative calling for a referendum whose timing would coincide with the Constituent Assembly vote, adding that drafting the constitution should not take more than one year at most. They also called on the interim president and prime minister to remain in their posts until the election of a legitimate executive authority. Talk of a referendum had been absent from public debate for a month and a half. During this time, the country enjoyed relative security and the debate around judicial independence and money in politics took precedence.

In August, the referendum issue resurfaced when constitutional law professor Sadek Beleid reiterated what he had been calling for since February 20, namely that the people ratify the constitution drafted by the Constituent Assembly via a referendum. He also called for a referendum to accompany the elections but limited it to deciding whether Tunisians want to directly elect an interim president from outside the Constituent Assembly, with the power to dissolve it, if its term exceeds one year. In this sense Beleid distinguished himself from those calling for the interim president and government to remain their posts.

First Item on the Agenda

On August 27, things took a dramatic turn when the prime minister received a delegation from the Republican Alliance, formerly Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). A member of the delegation, Ayyad Elloumi, reportedly cautioned against a “bloodbath” if the High Commission for the Realization of Revolutionary Goals excluded the leaders of the dissolved RCD in the coming elections. Since that day, political parties began to speak out about the referendum. Tunisians were then surprised when Hannibal TV, owned by a businessman close to the former regime, launched a propaganda campaign on the eve of Eid calling for a referendum along the same lines as Marzouk and the old guard.

In a suspiciously coordinated manner, a group of politicians and “analysts” scrambled to defend the idea of a referendum. Suddenly the Tunisian media became preoccupied with the referendum, while issues that were hotly contested weeks ago -- like the flight of figures associated with the old regime, judicial independence, and money in politics -- receded into the background.

Revolutionary graffiti adorns a wall of the Prime Minister's office in Tunis. (Photo: REUTERS - Finbarr O'Reilly)Revolutionary graffiti adorns a wall of the Prime Minister's office in Tunis. (Photo: REUTERS - Finbarr O'Reilly)

The controversial speech given by Caid el Sebsi on September 6 validated the suspicions of opponents of the referendum. In that speech, Caid el Sebsi said that the decision is not for him to take and it is up to the political parties to decide. Nevertheless, he seemed to welcome putting the idea of a referendum up for debate. It became clear from what he said that the parties associated with the RCD with whom he met insisted on the referendum. They reminded him of what al-Munsif al-Marzouqi, leader of the Republican Congress (a fierce opponent of Ben Ali), said on August 21. Al-Marzouqi proposed that the Constituent Assembly take up to three years to draft the constitution, a statement that triggered fear among those who opposed the Constituent Assembly from the start.

Ahmed Najib Chebbi, leader of the centrist Progressive Democratic Party, joined the call for the referendum. And he did not mind if Caid el Sebsi stayed in charge of a government, to which the referendum will give popular legitimacy. But the secretary general of the party Maya Jeribi told al-Akhbar that she is against extending the life of the interim government whose duties must end with the elections. She added that the purpose of the referendum is to determine the term of the Assembly and the scope of its authority.

Al-Nahda: Referendum to Sabotage Elections

Al-Nahda is the biggest Islamist party in Tunis. Polls forecast that it will win at least 30% of the seats in parliament. It strongly opposes the idea of a referendum that would limit the powers of the Assembly. It declared, in a joint statement with three other parties, that the referendum is part of a conspiracy that aims to nullify the elections. But in a meeting with the interim president, the party leadership said that the term of the Assembly should not be more than a year. It is almost the same position as that of the Workers’ Communist Party, which has remained committed to its radical positions.

What Kind of Referendum?

Mohsen Marzouk claims that the political scene is sharply divided between two camps: for and against the idea of a referendum. In reality, there is wide spectrum of opinions. There is, for example, a third position that does not oppose a referendum which would decide the duration of the Assembly without limiting its powers or extending the life of the interim government. There is also a fourth position which calls for a referendum about the future political system to decide whether it will be presidential or parliamentarian, or a combination of both. This position however has disappeared from the political debate.

The battle between those calling for a referendum and the “Constituent Assembly radicals” has not been settled yet. Observers fear that tensions around this issue might move from television talk shows to the streets, especially after the old guard parties called for a popular convention in support of the referendum. It is likely that this battle will be settled by the UGTT. This union played a key role in the post-revolutionary period by forcing the resignation of the two Ghannouchi governments and in advocating the idea of a Constituent Assembly. The UGTT has not clearly expressed its position on the referendum. To date, it has only vaguely affirmed the need for drafting a new constitution based on a referendum that would clearly affirm the Arab and Muslim identity of Tunisia as well as the political and social rights of workers and Tunisians in general.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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