Henry Kissinger In the complex realm of global diplomacy, there's a question that lingers. Who exactly was Henry Kissinger? Some consider him to be the best diplomat of the past six decades who left an indelible mark on the most turbulent years in global politics.
As Tunisians prepare to vote in the 25 July referendum called by President Kais Saied to ratify the new Constitution unveiled by him last month, his critics in the northern-most African country, its neighbours across the Mediterranean in Europe, and further west in America are terming the move an exemplar of the effort to usher in authoritarianism through Constitutional means. What’s happening in Tunisia is effectively the introduction of what scholars Sharan Grewal, Salah-Dean Satouri, and Ian DeHaven have termed a hyper-presidential system with a discernible Islamist agenda. That, on the borders of Europe, is cause for concern. Having gained power through a presidential coup in July last year, Mr Saied’s vision for a Tunisia which he will rule without any meaningful checks on his power if the referendum affirms the new Constitution, many fear, will lead the country down the path to a fullblown dictatorship.
A wary Opposition has called for a boycott of the 25 July referendum alleging that the whole process of drafting the Constitution has been illegitimate, but President Saied shows no signs of backing down. All the while, the country’s economy is going into a tailspin. Experts say that while Mr Saied has a limited point when he says the pre-2021 system had its flaws, he has wasted the opportunity to build a consensus around his political reforms ensuring that his so-called “new republic” will come a cropper sooner rather than later. In the name of unshackling what Mr Saied has called the “locks” on his power in the 2014 Constitution, he has proposed abolishing the two-headed executive where the president had to share power with a prime minister chosen by parliament. Under the new Constitution, the president will be the ultimate authority, choosing the prime minister, presenting laws to parliament, and appointing judges.
But, write Grewal, Satouri, and DeHaven, the Saied-proposed Constitution goes much beyond a simple presidential system. It removes most if not all legislative and judicial checks on the president. Parliament can no longer impeach the president. The legislature can still force the prime minister to resign but only with a two-thirds majority whereas earlier it required a simple majority. Further, an impeachment can only be initiated once in the parliament’s term; if the legislature tries to remove the prime minister a second time, the President can dissolve parliament itself.
The ‘state of emergency’ clause takes away the powers of parliament and of the Constitutional court to end the president’s assumption of exceptional powers. Perhaps fatally for democracy in Tunisia, the new Constitution strips the Constitutional court of the prerogative to interpret and adjudicate on the president’s powers. According to the International Commission of Jurists, the proposed Constitution “provides for an unbridled presidential system with an omnipotent President, a powerless Parliament and a toothless judiciary”. The new Constitution also underlines that Tunisia is “part of the Islamic ummah” and instructs the state “to work to achieve the objectives of pure Islam”. Experts suggest this lays the foundation for a theocratic Islamic state. What’s going down in Tunisia could well hold lessons for nations across the world where the democracydeficit is growing exponentially.