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Tunisia - Government

Tunisia is a republic with a strong presidential system that was long dominated by a single political party. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who abdicated in January 2011, was in office from 1987, when he deposed Habib Bourguiba, president since Tunisia's independence from France in 1956. Ben Ali in turn fled the country in January 2011.

Tunisia's interim president, Fouad Mebazza, said in March 2011 the country would vote July 24 to elect a council that will rewrite the constitution and chart the country's transition following the ouster of leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In a televised address, President Mebazaa said the current constitution "does not meet the aspirations of the people after the revolution" and that the country is entering "a new political system that definitively breaks with the former regime." The initial election of 217 Constituent Assembly members was held on 23 October 2011.

Tunisia was expected to get a new constitution by late 2012, paving the way for new elections. Instead, the ruling Islamist Ennahda Party and the secular opposition bickered over the role of Islam in politics, among other issues. Two years after the revolution, members of the National Constituent Assembly were still battling over the constitution. Tunisian lawmakers hoped to approve a long-delayed new constitution by 14 January 2014, coinciding with the anniversary of Tunisia's 2011 revolution. But there were growing doubts that will happen. By 06 January 2014 the parliament had passed several articles since it began voting on the draft constitution on 03 January 2014. But there are more than 145 articles, and the process was delayed by death threats against several secular opposition members.

Tunisia began a fresh political chapter after lawmakers passed a new constitution 26 January 2014 that some saw as a model for other Arab countries. A newly named caretaker government was tasked to usher the country to elections. The constitution bans torture, guarantees equal rights between men and women and the right to due process. While it names Islam as the country's religion, it also guarantees freedom of worship. Islam retains a strong role in the Tunisian society but is not the main source of legislation.

The new constitution provided for a semi presidential system along the French model, but with a significantly more powerful Prime Minister. The legislature elects the Prime Minister independent of the President. The Prime Minister appoints all government minsters except those for defence and foreign affairs. The President has exclusive control over these two ministries. The President of the Republic is to be elected by general, free, secret and direct elections. Legislative power is exercised power through the Chamber of Deputies or through referenda.

Judicial reform is a major sticking point. Under ousted president Ben Ali, the judiciary served as an extension of the ruling party, with judges directly appointed by the executive. Article 103, passed last week, declares that judges will be appointed by the president under the new constitution as well, leading some to worry that the ruling party will continue to control the judiciary.

The new constitution envisioned a decentralized state, with local governments fully empowered to manage their own budgets to meet the needs of their citizens. The challenge was turning that mandate into reality. It will require transforming the relationship between citizens and local governments. The World Bank has supported Tunisia throughout its transition, and is partnering with the government to build on the momentum established by recent political achievements to lay the foundations for social and economic change. As part of its engagement program, the Bank is supporting the Governments Urban Development and Local Governance Program to help realize the commitment to decentralization.

The Old Regime

The constitution was adopted June 1, 1959; amended July 12, 1988, June 29, 1999, June 1, 2002, May 13, 2003, and July 28, 2008. The president was elected to 5-year terms -- with virtually no opposition -- and appointed a prime minister and cabinet, who played a strong role in the execution of policy. The republican Constitution endorsed the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers; provided for regular elections; and included a bill of rights designed to protect individual freedoms. Although clearly democratic in its intent, the fundamental law permitted the president to exercise broad and unqualified executive powers within the context of a single-party state.

Although Tunisia's new leaders emerged from a secular and Westernized elite, at the dawn of independence there were no existing democratic institutions upon which to build. The beylik system, a degenerated relic of the sultanate-type government that preceded Tunisia's colonization in 1881, was abolished in 1957. Creating a new system from scratch, however, proved much more difficult than dismantling the old beylik system. The new leaders faced significant obstacles. One difficulty was adapting their liberal ideology to an Arab-Islamic culture, which,though consistent with democratic principles, was less tolerant of secularism. They also faced other obstacles typical of Afro-Asian countries -widespread illiteracy, low per capita income, and a basically agrarian economy.

The primary factors determining the role of the Tunisian government from independence were the country's cultural setting and economic under-development. Questions of pluralism and open markets were inextricably related to these two factors. The ruling party's power was entrenched by the Constitution of 1959 which gave the President overwhelming powers as chief of state and head of government. His ministers were hand-picked and granted extended terms in office. As a result the turnover in leadership positions was very low. Occasional delegation of power to a prime minister or a single minister often resulted in his demise. The President exercised ultimate authority over every aspect of the state, executive, legislative, and judicial. The legislative branch, the National Assembly, was merely a rubber stamp institution that served the Executive. Parliamentary elections were a pro forma matter of virtually unopposed hand-picked candidates selected by the President through the party bureau. Neither was the judiciary branch independent. Even the judges of the highest court, the Court of Cassation, were appointed by the President. In 1974, these relationships were further institutionalized when a constitutional amendment made Bourguiba president for life.

The country was divided administratively into 24 governorates. Regional governors and local administrators were also appointed by the central government; largely consultative mayors and municipal councils are elected. Administrative divisions: 24 governorates--Ariana, Beja, Ben Arous, Bizerte, El Kef, Gabes, Gafsa, Jendouba, Kairouan, Kasserine, Kebili, Mahdia, Manouba, Medenine, Monastir, Nabeul, Sfax, Sidi Bou Zid, Siliana, Sousse, Tataouine, Tozeur, Tunis, Zaghouan.

Suffrage was universal at 18. Active duty members of the military and internal security forces cannot vote.

There was a bicameral legislative body. The Chamber of Deputies had 214 seats. The Chamber of Deputies played a limited role as an arena for debate on national policy but never originated legislation and virtually always passed bills presented by the executive with only minor changes. The Chamber of Advisors (created by referendum in 2002), had 126 seats (85 elected by municipal officials and professional associations; 41 members are presidential appointees.) Members were elected for 6-year terms, with half of the chamber renewed every 3 years. First-time elections for the Chamber of Advisors took place in July 2005; half of these seats were up for re-election in August 2008.

The judiciary was nominally independent, but responded to executive direction, especially in politically sensitive cases. Tunisia's judiciary was headed by the Court of Cassation, whose head was appointed by the minister of justice and human rights. Judges of all courts were appointed by the minister of justice and human rights. The law provides for an independent judiciary; however, the executive branch and the president strongly influenced judicial procedures, particularly in cases involving political dissidents and oppositionists. The executive branch exercised indirect authority over the judiciary through the appointment, assignment, tenure, and transfer of judges, rendering the system susceptible to pressure.

Although judicial independence was prescribed, the status of the judiciary was clearly regarded as inferior to that of the other two branches. The courts have no jurisdiction over disputes between the president and the legislature, nor may they interpret the Constitution.



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