In a landmark moment in the Tunisian democratic transition process, the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) adopted the new Tunisian constitution on 26 January 2014. The Constitution’s adoption by 200 votes against 12 (with 4 abstentions) was not a triumph for one particular party or bloc, but the outcome of a long and difficult search for political consensus and compromise. The Constitution’s adoption paved the way for a successful vote of confidence on 28 January 2014 for the new technocratic government of Mehdi Jomaâ, itself the result of a national dialogue process between political parties. This caretaker government is destined to lead Tunisia until its next democratic elections by the end of 2014.
Like in many other countries undergoing democratic transitions, political polarisation in Tunisia has periodically translated into violent and crippling protests, which have had serious political repercussions. At several points, notably following the assassinations in 2013 of opposition politicians Chokri Belaïd and Mohammed Brahmi, it looked possible that the democratic transition would be derailed. Both assassinations catalysed widespread protests and both resulted in the resignation of the prime minister and reforming of the government. At some points during the last two-and-a-half years, it looked likely that the elected NCA would be dissolved before completing its primary task of drafting the new Tunisian constitution. To many, a “hard” or “soft” coup overthrowing the government was the most likely end to the democratic experiment in Tunisia.
Many in the secular opposition were categorically opposed to any cooperation or compromise with the Islamic political party Ennahda. Many within Ennahda, confident in their popular support, believed that it would be better to match opposition protests in the street or call a popular referendum to renew their democratic mandate, rather than make too many concessions to the secular opposition and risk alienating their conservative Muslim base. Nevertheless, although not accepted by all, the search for consensus and compromise has characterised Tunisian post-revolutionary politics.
This paper outlines some of the innovative mechanisms for consensus-building and inclusive decisionmaking deployed in Tunisia since the 2011 elections. Much interest has been generated by the Yemeni national dialogue, with countries from Libya to Myanmar looking to develop similar processes. Tunisia also used national dialogue to seek consensus and compromise during its transition process. However, the national dialogue processes in Tunisia took a radically different form from that in Yemen or most other countries. Moreover, national dialogue was only one mechanism used to broaden consensus and find compromises during the transition process. As we will see, other mechanisms, including different types of coalition governments and mechanisms rooted in existing legislative institutions, were also used.
This paper touches upon the role of the international community, the somewhat ambiguous role of Tunisian civil society organisations in the transition process, and briefly considers the role of popular protests in pushing for greater inclusiveness in political decision-making: points which deserve further consideration and more detailed treatment. Finally, it considers whether these mechanisms can be deployed in other contexts, instead of more traditional power-sharing mechanisms.