With the country mired in a range of structural issues, president Kais Saied’s move to cement one-man rule will only increase unaccountability and corruption.

Two months after the July 25 decisions by President Kais Saied, Tunisians are still without a prime minister and a parliament.

Saied’s intervention came amid frustrations due to the proliferation of pandemic-related deaths, corruption, and economic challenges. Saied, who continues to receive a broad-range of support across Tunisians, has indicated that he wishes to strengthen the role of the presidency and change the electoral laws.

As he has consolidated power in his hands through a presidential decree on September 22, the question remains as to whether switching to a presidential system with concentrated powers can help combat Tunisia’s economic problems while consolidating its democracy.

We argue that Saied’s approach will face substantive limitations as some of Tunisia’s problems have structural roots, and changing the regime type does not necessarily provide solutions to them.

Furthermore, given Tunisia’s institutional heritage, consolidating power risks increasing unaccountability and corruption. If the president wishes to take the country forward, he will need to engage with a variety of actors instead of restricting decision-making to the Carthage Palace.  

Although Tunisia has been successful in advancing individual freedoms since the 2011 revolution, it has made little progress in solving endemic corruption or economic problems, which were further aggravated due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Since July 25, Saied has succeeded in reducing pandemic-related deaths, in part thanks to the donations provided by other countries, and he has taken some steps on the economic front, such as initiating a cooperation with the Union of Retail Stores to cut the prices for some products.

However, this initiative was not sufficient to curb inflation, particularly in food prices. Similarly, an emboldened judiciary has been going after politicians suspected of engaging in corruption, including MPs suspected of smuggling, money laundering and tax evasion, and misusing state projects.

By the same token, Saied has replaced some governors and other high-level state officials, a task traditionally undertaken by the cabinet. These measures showcase the extent of power consolidation in Saied’s hands to overcome endemic corruption.

Consolidating power, in its essence, comes with two main promises: stability and greater capacity to solve structural problems. It can expand the toolkit for a more targeted approach towards key issues and enrich the confidence of investors.

However, it does not necessarily provide the panacea to all problems and can sometimes have negative repercussions as institutions do not operate under a blank slate.

As a late-industrialised country, trade deficits and large public debts limit the capacity for domestic spending and welfare distribution in Tunisia. This situation is exacerbated by high barriers of entry to the market for domestic entrepreneurs, the prevalence of veto players, endemic corruption, and unwavering inflation, which is partly imported through the exchange rate.

Furthermore, due to the decades of authoritarian rule, Tunisia has a top-down, distributive and mostly unaccountable institutional heritage, influencing the workings of many institutions, such as the bureaucracy, private sector, unions and even security forces. So far, Saied has not laid down any clear plans to tackle these structural issues.

The absence of a clear strategy also risks limiting the anti-corruption initiative to some high-profile cases and losing steam over time, as the Institute to Fight Against Corruption (INLUCC) was closed after July 25.

Moreover, consolidating the power in a single head can paradoxically embolden some corrupt practices in the future.

Under a hyper-centralised system, large corporations can more easily reach deals with the central authorities without the need to convince middle sources of power. This also relates to a central paradox in Saied’s hybrid democracy model, which assumes that the “general will” as represented by the President overlaps with the interests of individuals.

A manifest example of this paradox occurred when Saied’s call to increase phosphate production contradicted the decades-long activism of environmental groups. Similarly, when Saied attempted to reduce the market prices, he solicited the support of the Union of Retail Stores, a near-monopoly organisation, illustrating the limitations in his approach.

Due to the ambiguity of plans, some organisations, such as the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), which initially supported the president’s decisions, are now calling on him to declare a clear roadmap and schedule legislative elections. Although the Constitution clearly stipulates the conditions for ratifying laws, Saied may still choose to put the reforms on referendum without asking the parliament for ratification.

It remains unclear whether Saied would be interested in choosing his envisioned plan, or settle for a “compromise” that would maintain a role for the political parties and the parliament. Furthermore, as the polls indicate, there is no guarantee that a majority will support the presidential system.

Moving forward, we consider it a better strategy that Saied engage with all actors, including the parliament, to initiate a durable agenda. “Consensus” in Tunisia sometimes meant avoiding hard-to-tackle problems and normalising corruption.

We agree that ending corruption and enhancing judicial capacity are pre-conditions for a viable compromise. These goals can be achieved through establishing a Constitutional Court, strengthening the judiciary and setting new conditions on parliamentary immunities without fully consolidating the power in the president's hands.

It is unlikely that the current institutional structure will permit a single person to solve the country’s socio-economic problems.

Instead, it is time to recognise that the diversity of and competition among different interests in Tunisia, coupled with its institutional heritage, require an approach based on humility and compromise that would involve the president, parliament, political parties, business organisations, unions and other civil society groups.

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