Add Tunisia to the list of countries with events that likely qualify as an autogolpe. The elected president, Kais Saied, has undertaken a power grab in which he “froze” parliament, dismissed the prime minister, and announced he would rule by decree.
Tunisia’s system of government, since the emergence of democracy following the fall of the dictatorship in 2011, is premier-presidential. This is the subtype of semi-presidential regime that is generally thought to have good institutional safeguards against presidential over-reach. The elected presidency of Tunisia has constitutionally limited power. It is worth quoting some of the constitution’s provisions that pertain to presidential authority. For instance, Article 70:
In the event of the dissolution of the Assembly, the President of the Republic may, with the agreement of the Head of Government, issue decree-laws which shall be submitted for ratification to the Assembly of the Representatives of the People during its next ordinary session.
The Assembly of the Representatives of the People may, with the agreement of three-fifths of its members, authorize by law for a limited period not exceeding two months, and for a specific purpose, the Head of Government to issue decree-laws of a legislative character, to be submitted for ratification to the Assembly immediately after the end of the period of authorization.
The electoral system might not be amended by decree-laws.
Note that the Head of Government (prime minister) must agree to decrees that occur during dissolution, which in any case must be submitted to the assembly. However, in the current case, the president has already dismissed the PM and dissolved (“suspended”) the assembly. The second paragraph allows for delegated degree powers, but not to the president, and only by a super-majority.
What about dissolution power? Article 77 includes within its list of presidential powers:
Dissolving the Assembly of the Representatives of the People in accordance with provisions of the Constitution. The Assembly shall not be dissolved during the six months following granting confidence to the government, or the six months following legislative elections, or during the last six months of the presidential or parliamentary terms.
The dismissed PM had been appointed in February, 2020, so more than six months ago. Thus perhaps a dissolution could be permissible. However, does the president have authority to dismiss the PM? Articles 97 and 98 govern the process of government termination, and do not give the presidency any unilateral dismissal authority. The government depends on the exclusive confidence of the assembly majority. This is why I class it as a premier-presidential system. Moreover, per Article 89, the president has almost no discretion in who will be appointed prime minister. The process is quite “parliamentary” in that the leader of the largest party must be tasked first, and if that leader fails, then the “person judged most capable to form a government.” If after four months there is no government approved by the assembly majority, then there may be a dissolution and call for early elections. In other words, the president has no unilateral parliamentary dissolution power just as he has no government dismissal authority.
What about emergency power? Article 80 allows for a state of emergency “In the event of imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions or the security or independence of the country, and hampering the normal functioning of the state… after consultation with the Head of Government and the Speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People and informing the President of the Constitutional Court.” The article goes on to restrict the president’s powers under a state of emergency, including that “The Assembly of the Representatives of the People shall be deemed to be in a state of continuous session throughout such a period.” Obviously, this article has not been followed.
The president claimed he was acting within the constitution. I am not a constitutional lawyer nor any sort of authority on Tunisia. But as I read the constitution, he is lying about respecting institutional order, and has carried out a coup against the government and legislature.
In many of my own writings I have been quite favorable to premier-presidential constitution designs, on the grounds that they provide clear restrictions on the powers of the president, and give presidential aspirants strong incentives to build parties or links to parties in order to sustain an allied government in office. Tunisia now is an example that strains this argument. This president is an independent, elected with 72.7% in the second round on 13 October, 2019, after having secured only 18.4% in the first round on 15 September (his nearest opponent had 15.6% and the third candidate 12.9%–both runners-up were party-backed).
The last assembly election was on 6 October, 2019. Aside: Is this only case ever in which an assembly election has been between rounds of a presidential election? In the assembly election, the largest party was the Islamist party, Ennahda, on only 19.6%. (Their candidate finished third in the presidential first round.) Ennahda won 52 of the 217 seats (24.0%). The second largest party, Heart of Tunisia, won 14.6% and 38 seats; this was the party of the other presidential runoff contender. No other party broke 7% of the vote. The effective number of seat-winning parties is presumably in excess of 8.0.*
Thus we have here a case of extremely high party-system fragmentation, combined with a president lacking party ties. This is the classic Linzian “perils of presidentialism” combination. However, premier-presidential systems are supposed to overcome these perils (although Linz himself had his doubts). One case does not disprove a thesis, and maybe Tunisian democracy would have broken down even if there were no directly elected presidency. Nonetheless, the precise means of breakdown–an autogolpe carried out by an outsider nonparty president–should give us pause about the claim that premier-presidentialism is an antidote to the perils of presidentialism.
* I can’t say precisely because the source I am using–Wikipedia–groups 12 seats under “independent lists” which obviously should not be treated as a single party; if it were a single party, the effective N would be 7.85.