Tunisia: the need for vigilance

Having got rid of Ben Ali and his family, the question now for Tunisians is how to dismantle the system of control that he established over the last 23 years – and it's looking far from easy. Without continuous pressure from the public, the Ben Ali loyalists are likely to retrench and continue running the country much as before – minus Ben Ali of course, and perhaps in a slightly less repressive way.

The "new" government announced yesterday is not a good start. Give or take a few opposition figures, it looks suspiciously like the old one: same prime minister, same people in all the key positions. And all the opposition parties included in it are those that Ben Ali approved of – with none of the parties that he banned.

This can be excused, to some extent, on the grounds of maintaining legitimacy: that constitutional procedures have to be followed and that the outlawed parties are – well – still technically illegal. It has be remembered, though, that the legitimacy – such as it is – comes from a constitution that was never designed to be genuinely democratic and is derived from a regime that many would not regard as legitimate in any case.

The crucial issue is whether this new government is one to set the country on a path to transition of whether it will merely try to consolidate whatever can be salvaged from the old regime.

Either way, the new government may only last a couple of months. Under the constitution, a presidential election must be held within 60 days of Ben Ali's departure (no later than March 12 by my reckoning). The new president is then empowered to form a new government and dissolve the existing parliament.

Sixty days is a very short time to organise a presidential campaign from scratch and this probably gives Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party, with its structure still largely intact, a considerable advantage – regardless of any other attempts to manipulate the result.

Another question here concerns the presidential candidates. As Ibn Kafka points out in his blog, in order to contest the election they need 30 signatures from members of parliament or presidents of city councils.

It's not clear at present how much of an obstacle that might become, but the RCD currently holds 161 of the 214 parliamentary seats. In order to muster 30 parliamentary signatures without RCD support, candidates will need backing from at least three of the smaller opposition parties. However, if the RCD wants to avoid generating more hostility among the public it would be well-advised not to use this power to block any serious opposition candidates.

I have been trying to find out how the voting is supposed to work in Tunisian presidential elections but so far I don't have an answer. If there are more than two candidates, does the winner need more than 50% of the votes, or is it a first-past-the-post system? The question was irrelevant before, because Ben Ali always won with majorities that were never less than 89%, but it's relevant now.
If it's a first-past-the-post system, there's a risk of splitting the opposition vote among multiple candidates and letting the RCD candidate slip through by default.

A new president is empowered by the constitution (article 57) to dissolve parliament and hold elections within 30 days. However, he (or she??) is not obliged to do so and in theory the existing parliament could remain in place until its term ends in October 2014.

I'm not suggesting this is necessarily what will happen but it's worth keeping in mind that without extreme vigilance on the part of the Tunisian public, the country might find itself, a few months from now, with another RCD president and a parliament still dominated by Ben Ali's party. Tunisians are going to have to remain very watchful, and keep up the pressure for change.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 Jan 2011.

UPDATE, 19 January: Regarding presidential elections, a reader who asked not to be identified informs me: 

"If there is more than one candidate, the winner has to get at least 50 per cent of the votes cast. If no candidate gets 50 per cent, the campaign is re- run one week after the results of the first round are announced, and the campaign for the second round lasts one week (for the first round, it's two weeks). Voting for the second round begins two days after the end of campaigning."