The ACRPS Democratic Transition seminar was held remotely on Wednesday 21 April, hosting Mounir Kchaou, Professor of Political Philosophy at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, who gave a lecture on “The Political System and Representative Democracy in the Context of a Democratic Transition: Tunisia as an Example.”
The session is part of the ACRPS Seminar Programme moderated by ACRPS researcher, Mohammad Hemchi. Kchaou stressed that one of the most important post-revolution decisions is about the type of political system to form. The situation becomes more difficult in the Arab Spring countries, including Tunisia. The deliberations about the nature of the desired political system after the overthrow of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took place in the light of a non-democratic political culture and the proposals for change were limited to individuals and not to the radical transformation of political institutions and the structure of governance. This was a pattern repeated in many countries. Political thought was directed towards representative democracy, but without creating guarantees to ensure democratic success, effective political participation, institutional strength, healthy political parties, and a robust civil society.
The debate centred around what Maurice Duverger calls the dual executive system, which Kchaou argued was ineffective in establishing democracy during the transitional phase, as a system that disrupts the mobility of society and fails to nurture pluralism. It remains vulnerable to populist waves, as it provides the basis for the whims of unilateralism to flourish and control mechanisms to be disabled. Kchaou favours the parliamentary system, which, despite being difficult to implement in countries that have been long ruled by an autocratic regime, provides better safeguards against individual tyranny. It limits the executive power from concentration in the hands of the president. Kchaou believes that the parliamentary system is based on the principle that each authority limits the other authority, which requires cooperation despite the likelihood of disagreement and competition.
Kchaou tested this distinction in the case of Tunisia, where the nature and quality of the political system after the fall of the regime remained the subject of widespread debate during the drawing of the constitution from 2012-2014.
The 2014 constitution adopted a hybrid political system, placing the executive authority in the hands of the head of government, not the president of the republic, and rendering the head of government accountable to the parliament, which has the power to monitor and dissolve the government. Meanwhile, the president of the republic does not have the power to interfere in cabinet appointments. The constitution delegated this exclusively to the prime minister and required parliamentary approval. Kchaou stresses that this is not a purely parliamentary system, as the President of the Republic is elected by direct vote of the people, not by Parliament, and enjoys powers that presidents do not possess in typical parliamentary systems. The president represents the state and, after consulting the prime minister, sets general defense, foreign relations, and national security policies related to the protection of the state and national territories from domestic and foreign threats. The president also presides over the National Security Council, takes over the general command of the armed forces, declares war and concludes peace treaties, after the approval of the House of Representatives. He has the power to declare and end a state of emergency, and signs laws. He also has the power to dissolve the House of Representatives and call for elections, and he has the right to appoint some high-ranking diplomatic and military positions after consulting the Prime Minister, in addition to other positions. However, in exchange for these powers, the President of the Republic does not enjoy significant executive powers domestically. The major executive tasks related to the running of government agencies remain in the hands of the prime minister, who exercises these powers with parliamentary oversight.
In examining the debate surrounding the nature of the political system as it was being established, Kchaou considered the differences between the constitutional jurists and the political and intellectual elites. There were thus divisions between those who defended the stability of the presidential system and those who dismissed it as incompatible with a nascent democracy, paving the way to autocracy. Consequently, a compromise was achieved in the form of a modified parliamentary system.
Kchaou went on to discuss characteristics of the Tunisian system such as electoral engineering, decentralization, and proportional list-based voting. This kind of voting system provides for the inclusion of representatives from marginalized sectors of society, who would not have had a base of representation through the majority system. However, while the system guarantees representation to women, people with special needs and under 25s, the problem remains that this type of voting does not produce a balanced majority within the Assembly of Representatives, often leading to a fragmented structure. He pointed out that the recent 2019 legislative elections had produced a fragmented parliament, which made it difficult for Ennahda to form a government. Two major proposals have emerged in regard to amending the electoral law: The first considers that efficiency, political stability and security are urgent requirements, the achievement of which requires the adoption of a majority system, in order to form a stable and effective government. The second supports proportional lists, and the success of the principle of parity in parliamentary and municipal elections. He pointed out that most of the solutions proposed to overcome the problem of parliamentary fragmentation either involved amending the electoral law to grant the first winning party at least 30 percent of parliamentary seats to enable it to form a government, or by introducing an electoral threshold of between 5 And 10 percent.
Kchaou emphasized that Tunisia’s electoral problem lies in the incomplete political and legal system, from which the Constitutional Court has yet to be formed. The same is true for other independent bodies stipulated in the constitution, such as the Good Governance and Anti-Corruption Commission and the Telecommunication Authority — bodies related to the electoral process. He emphasised the need to enacting the amended test of the electoral law, which recognizes the 3 percent threshold, and also prohibits the nomination of those who promote hate speech and racism and incite violence, as well as those who conduct charitable work for political purposes. He emphasized the necessity to expedite the establishment of the Telecommunication Authority and implement its restrictions on channels and radio stations that spread political propaganda.
In the context of the relationship of the central and local authorities, Kchaou pointed out that Chapter Seven of the Tunisian constitution established a framework for decentralization, which stalled now. With the exception of the municipal elections that were held in 2018, the councils of the rest of the local authorities were not elected, and the mechanisms for transferring powers to them have not yet been clarified. He demonstrated the misconceptions about this system for the unity of the state. The development of local administrations enables local groups to take responsibility for governance and self-management in order to reduce the burden on the central authority, which maintains its oversight role through the specialized administrative and supervisory bodies as well as the judiciary.
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