There is a complex constitutional crisis in Tunisia following President Kais Saied’s refusal to allow new ministers to join the government and take their constitutional oath even after they were given a vote of confidence by parliament. The resultant political crisis has deepened the differences between the president, the speaker of parliament and the prime minister. All possible escape routes out of this crisis remain open to complex calculations. There are also intense debates wherein each party sticks to its positions and barricades itself behind a wall of constitutional powers.
Possible solutions to the crisis revolve around three basic propositions: one is presented by Saied, and two are proposed by others. The president’s proposal is accepted and supported by the opposition parties and the parliamentary blocs that support them. It includes two options: the first calls for dismissing ministers who he says are suspected of corruption or conflicts of interest. This is regarded as one of the easiest and most reasonable options for resolving the crisis, but it will not end it completely, because the president believes that the main problem lies in the cabinet reshuffle, which he describes as illegal, since it brought about a change not only in the composition of the government, but also in its nature, from technocratic to partisan. Hence, this option will not resolve the crisis, given that the president believes that the reshuffle procedures followed by Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi violate the constitution.
The second option calls for the resignation of the government, which brings three possibilities of its own: the voluntary resignation of Mechichi and his team; a vote of no confidence by parliament; or its overthrow by popular protests. This is one of the most difficult and complex options on the table for resolving the political crisis, for many reasons.
The most important of these is that both the president and the prime minister view the crisis as a matter of life or death. As a result, their propositions are based on their desire to prove their strength, not the logic of political prudence. Hence, it is unlikely that Mechichi will resign, especially since this proposal is rejected by the “parliamentary belt” of the government and its resignation will allow the president to nominate a new prime minister, as happened with the government of Elyes Fakhfakh.
The likelihood that Saied and his supporters in parliament will succeed in a vote of no confidence is very small, if not impossible in light of the current alliances. The government is supported by the “influential” parliamentary blocs — the aforementioned “parliamentary belt” — made up of 120 out of the 217 MPs distributed among Ennahda (54 MPs), Heart of Tunisia (29), National Reform Bloc (18), Tahya Tounes (10), and the National Bloc (9). A vote of confidence requires a simple majority of MPs, 109 votes, and these are not available to Saied and those who support him.
The third possibility that popular protests can topple the government is one of the most dangerous, because it could take Tunisia back to 2013 and violence on the streets. The people are already divided and tense, meaning that a point of no return could be reached, leading to chaos.
Consequently, the first proposition requires concessions by both parties. The president would need to accept the ministers rejected by him being replaced by new ones and move forward with the oath of office and a vote of confidence in parliament. The ministers could also be appointed as advisors to the prime minister.
Another proposition is that Saied could be dismissed as president. This is being discussed by parties opposed to the man as an individual, because they believe that his refusal to allow the new ministers to take the constitutional oath is a grave mistake that requires action to remove him under Article 88 of the Constitution. This is seen as both complex and unachievable, for constitutional and political reasons. For example, the president can only be questioned and removed by the Constitutional Court, which has been suspended for years and barely exists at all due to political disputes.
Moreover, any proposal to remove the president requires a two-thirds majority in parliament (145 votes) before being referred to the Constitutional Court. This majority is not available to the parliamentary blocs that are making this proposal. Those which support President Saied are able to block any such proposal.
The third proposal calls for dialogue, concessions and dealing with differences within the institutional framework rather than personalising the issue. This is the most appropriate for a political solution to the current crisis. However, sticking to political positions at the expense of the public interest may lead to state institutions being destabilised, thus deepening and exacerbating the crisis.
In conclusion, it can be said that regardless of the options presented it is important for Tunisia’s nascent democracy that none of the parties initiate any legal or political moves that deviate from the constitutional framework. No such precedent should be set for future generations.
This article first appeared in Arbaic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 16 February 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.