Parliament’s suspension seems a power grab by President, not a response to public anger
Tunisian President Kais Saied’s decision to sack the Prime Minister and suspend Parliament, amid widespread anti-government protests, has triggered the worst political crisis in the country since the Arab Spring protests. Among the countries affected by the Arab street protests, Tunisia was the only one that managed to successfully transition from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy. But the North African country’s elected rulers never managed to ease its economic woes, or offer stable governance. Tunisia has had nine governments since 2011, with its crisis-hit economy being battered further by the COVID-19 outbreak — last year, its GDP contracted by 8.8% in real terms. The trigger now is the government’s poor handling of the pandemic. The country of 11.8 million has recorded nearly 18,000 COVID-related deaths so far — one of the highest per capita death rates in the world. Only 7% of the population are fully vaccinated. Last week, the government’s move to speed up vaccination by opening it for all above 18 years ended in stampedes and violent incidents. Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi sacked the Health Minister, but public anger refused to subside. On July 25, Tunisia’s Republic Day, protests broke out and the offices of the ruling party, Ennahda, stormed. This allowed the President to sack the government.
President Saied says he stepped in to “save the state”. But in a country where the wounds of decades-long dictatorship are yet to heal, his move to dissolve an elected government would raise concerns rather than comfort. Both the President and Parliament are popularly elected. Mr. Mechichi had the backing of Ennahda, the largest party in the suspended Parliament. President Saied, who is an independent, has had a testy relationship with Ennahda and the Prime Minister. While the Mechichi government has clearly failed in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, the President’s move to dissolve Parliament appears more a power grab than a genuine attempt to address the country’s problems. Ennahda and at least two other parties have accused Mr. Saied of orchestrating a coup. If they resort to protests, it would pitch the parties that control Parliament against the President, deepening political instability. The 2014 Constitution has called for a constitutional court to settle crises like these, but the court has not been formed yet. Under the Constitution, the President oversees only the military and foreign affairs, while the Prime Minister is in charge of the day-to-day affairs of governance. So to avoid a constitutional crisis, the President will have to appoint a Prime Minister, who should win the confidence of the Assembly of the People’s Representatives. Mr. Saied should act within his constitutional limits, recall Parliament and allow the formation of a legitimate government, which could take steps to address Tunisia’s economic and health-care woes.