Can Saied’s plan solve Tunisia’s problems?
As the country is mired in a series of structural problems, President Kais Saied’s decision to cement one-man rule will only increase irresponsibility and corruption.
Two months after President Kais Saied’s July 25 decisions, Tunisians still have no prime minister and no parliament.
Saied’s intervention came amid frustrations over the proliferation of deaths linked to the pandemic, corruption and economic challenges. Saied, who continues to receive a wide range of support among Tunisians, said he wanted to strengthen the role of the presidency and change electoral laws.
As he has consolidated power In his hands by presidential decree on September 22, the question remains whether the shift to a presidential system with concentrated powers can help combat Tunisia’s economic problems while consolidating its democracy.
We contend that Saied’s approach will face substantial limitations as some of Tunisia’s problems have structural roots and regime change does not necessarily provide solutions to them.
Moreover, given Tunisia’s institutional heritage, the consolidation of power risks increasing irresponsibility and corruption. If the president is to move the country forward, he will need to engage with a variety of actors instead of restricting decision-making to the Palace of Carthage.
Although Tunisia has been successful in advancing individual freedoms since the 2011 revolution, it has made little progress in addressing endemic corruption or economic problems, which have worsened further due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since July 25, Saied has succeeded in reducing pandemic-related deaths, in part thanks to donations provided by other countries, and it has taken economic measures, such as launching cooperation with the Union of retail stores to reduce the price of certain products.
However, this initiative was not sufficient to curb inflation, especially in food prices. Likewise, a daring justice system attacks politicians suspected of corruption, including MPs suspected of smuggling, money laundering and tax evasion, and abuse of state plans.
Likewise, Saied replaced some governors and other senior state officials, a task traditionally undertaken by the cabinet. These steps show the extent of the consolidation of power in Saied’s hands to overcome endemic corruption.
Consolidation of power, in its essence, comes with two main promises: stability and a greater ability to solve structural problems. It can broaden the toolbox for a more focused approach to key issues and enhance investor confidence.
However, it does not necessarily provide a panacea for all problems and can sometimes have negative repercussions as institutions do not operate on a white table.
As a country with late industrialization, trade deficits and large public debts limit the capacity for domestic spending and distribution of welfare in Tunisia. This situation is exacerbated by the high barriers to entering the market for domestic entrepreneurs, the prevalence of veto players, rampant corruption and unwavering inflation, which is partly imported by the exchange rate.
Moreover, due to decades of authoritarian rule, Tunisia has a top-down, distributive and mostly irresponsible institutional heritage, influencing the functioning of many institutions, such as the bureaucracy, the private sector, unions and even the security forces. . So far, Saied has not set any clear plan to tackle these structural issues.
The lack of a clear strategy is also likely to limit the anti-corruption initiative to some high-profile cases and run out of steam over time, with the Anti-Corruption Institute (INLUCC) closed after July 25. .
Moreover, the consolidation of power in a single head may paradoxically embolden some corrupt practices in the future.
In a hyper-centralized system, large companies can more easily enter into agreements with central authorities without needing to convince intermediary sources of power. It is also linked to a central paradox in Saied’s model of hybrid democracy, which assumes that the “general will” represented by the president overlaps with the interests of individuals.
A clear example of this paradox came when Saied’s call to increase phosphate production contradicted decades of activism by environmental groups. Likewise, when Saied tried to reduce market prices, he requested the support of the Union of Retail Stores, a quasi-monopolistic organization, illustrating the limits of his approach.
Due to the ambiguity of the plans, some organizations, such as the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), which initially supported the president’s decisions, are now asking him to declare a clear roadmap and schedule legislative elections. Although the Constitution clearly stipulates the conditions for ratifying laws, Saied can still choose to submit reforms to a referendum without seeking ratification by parliament.
It is still unclear whether Saied would be interested in choosing the plan he envisioned or whether he would settle for a “compromise” that maintains a role for political parties and parliament. Moreover, as polls indicate, there is no guarantee that a majority will support the presidential system.
Moving forward, we see it as a better strategy that Saied engages with all actors, including parliament, to launch a sustainable agenda. “Consensus” in Tunisia sometimes meant avoiding hard-to-solve problems and normalizing corruption.
We agree that ending corruption and building judicial capacity are prerequisites for a viable compromise. These objectives can be achieved by creating a Constitutional Court, strengthening the judiciary and setting new conditions for parliamentary immunities without fully consolidating power in the hands of the president.
The current institutional structure is unlikely to allow one person to solve the socio-economic problems of the country.
Instead, it is time to recognize that the diversity and competition between different interests in Tunisia, coupled with its institutional heritage, requires an approach based on humility and compromise that would involve the president, parliament, parties. politicians, professional organizations, unions and other civil society groups.
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