Landmark Tunisian constitution set for vote


Sun, Jan 26, 2014 - Page 6

Tunisian lawmakers are to vote today on adopting a long-delayed new constitution seen as crucial to getting the country’s democratic transition back on track more than three years after the popular uprising that toppled former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and touched off the Arab Spring.

Lawmakers completed their line-by-line scrutiny of the text late on Thursday after three weeks of heated debate on a range of subjects, including the role of Islam, women’s rights, the independence of the judiciary and the president’s powers.

The charter now needs the approval of two-thirds of the 217 members of Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly to be adopted. This would pave the way for the appointment of a caretaker Cabinet of independents headed by Tunisian prime minister-designate Mehdi Jomaa and tasked with leading the country to parliamentary and presidential elections later this year

Assembly information officer Karima Souid said the plenary session was set for 9am today, after earlier indicating that the vote was to take place yesterday.

Instead, legislators were to meet yesterday afternoon to reform the rules of the censorship motion, making it harder to dismiss the new government, to which the ruling Ennahda Movement has agreed to hand power under a deal to end months of political deadlock.

Jomaa was also set to present his Cabinet line-up to Tunisian President Moncef Mazouki yesterday, with a vote of confidence on the technocrat government set for Tuesday, according to Ennahda, which holds the largest share of seats in the assembly.

The Islamist party’s veteran leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, hailed the draft charter as an “historic achievement” that would enable the establishment of the Arab world’s first democracy.

“We are at an advanced stage of the transition, all that remains is to officially adopt this historic document and fix the date of the next elections,” Ghannouchi said.

Under the new constitution, executive power would be divided between the prime minister — who will have the dominant role — and the president, who retains important prerogatives, notably in defense and foreign affairs.

Islam is not mentioned as a source of legislation, although it is recognized as the nation’s religion and the draft constitution commits the state to “prohibiting any attacks on the sacred,” while guaranteeing freedom of conscience.

Hundreds of hardline Islamists gathered in Tunis on Friday to denounce what they branded a “secular” constitution.

“We are announcing our rejection of this constitution which serves foreign intelligence services... We have one master: our Prophet Mohammed,” one of the speakers shouted to the crowd, which shouted slogans demanding Shariah law.

Human rights are broadly enshrined in the text, although some rights groups have expressed concern that the provisions are vague.

The charter upholds gender equality and women’s rights “without discrimination,” and commits the state to promoting equal representation in elected bodies, which is unprecedented in the Arab world.

If the constitution is approved, it would then be formally promulgated by Tunisian President Marzouki, outgoing Islamist Prime Minister Ali Larayedh and Assembly President Mustapha Ben Jaafar, with the signing ceremony set for tomorrow.

If it fails to achieve the necessary majority on its first or second reading, it must be put to a referendum.