Tunisia president extends parliament suspension, Calls for a referendum

Tunisia's President Kais Saied on Monday extended his months-long suspension of parliament until new elections in December 2022, while calling for a July referendum on constitutional reforms.

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Tunisia’s President Kais Saied on Monday extended his months-long suspension of parliament until new elections in December 2022, while calling for a July referendum on constitutional reforms.

In a speech on national television, Saied announced a three-month “popular consultation” with the Tunisian people after which “draft constitutional and other reforms will be put forward to referendum on July 25”.

That will mark a year since he sacked the government, suspended parliament and seized a string of powers, as the North African country wallowed in political and economic crises compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.

Saied later moved to rule by decree, sparking fears for the only democracy to have emerged from the Arab uprisings a decade ago.

On Monday he said that “parliament will remain suspended until new elections… on the basis of a new electoral law” on December 17 next year, the anniversary of the start of the 2011 revolution that chased dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power.

That effectively dissolves the current assembly dominated by his nemesis, the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party which had played a central role in Tunisian politics since Ben Ali’s fall.

Saied’s July 25 moves were initially welcomed by many Tunisians sick of a political elite seen as corrupt and ineffective in dealing with the country’s deep social and political woes.

But he has also faced growing opposition from critics who fear he is seeking to install a new autocracy in Tunisia, the birthplace of the 2011 Arab uprisings.

– Constitutions are ‘not eternal’ –

Saied, a former legal academic elected in 2019, has been a sharp critic of the North African country’s 2014 constitution and frequently hinted in recent weeks that he wants to change it.

The document, which put in place a hybrid presidential and parliamentary system, was seen as a compromise between Ennahdha and its secular rivals.

But many Tunisians see the political system it created as having failed, creating corruption and endless blockages without resolving deep social and economic problems.

Saied, who has faced domestic and international pressure to lay out a roadmap for restoring democratic institutions, on Monday announced a nationwide public consultation from January 1 until March 20.

Wearing a dark suit beside the Tunisian flag, he said “electronic platforms” and direct meetings would be used to gather suggestions for constitutional and other reforms.

A committee will then examine them until June, ahead of a referendum on July 25 — the anniversary the Tunisian republic was declared in 1957, the year after independence from France.

Earlier Monday, Saied had told cabinet that constitutions are “not eternal”.

– Calls for timeline –

“The people exercises its sovereignty in the framework of the constitution,” Saied said.

“So if it’s not possible for the sovereign people to practise its rights in the framework of a text, then there needs to be a new text.”

Saied has frequently but indirectly accused Ennahdha of corruption.

Addressing cabinet on Monday, he cited a court report that accused the party of receiving foreign funding.

“Those who have received and continue to receive money from abroad have no place in parliament,” he said.

The envoys of the G7 democratic, developed economies plus the European Union had urged Tunisia on Friday to respect “fundamental freedoms” and set a timeline for a return to democratic institutions.

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