Since the Revolution, Tunisia has lived through a phase of institutional innovation, establishing a new set of institutions seeking to reflect the Revolution’s demands for accountability, justice and representation of the will of the people. The National Constituent Assembly elected on 23 October 2011 had the primary task of drafting a new constitution, but also the role of monitoring the work of the Executive, with powers to summon and question Ministers. This transitional phase has produced new mechanisms and traditions of parliamentary oversight of executive power that will be studied and can be built on by the future parliament elected later this year.
In an international conference organized by the UN Development Program on 18th June on strengthening the parliamentary oversight function in Tunisia, Tunisia’s recent experience of parliamentary oversight was discussed in comparison with the experience of older democracies. Speakers from Tunisia, France, Belgium, Denmark and several other countries presented the Tunisian experience and the different models and modalities used by different parliaments to exercise their important function of oversight and keeping the executive branch transparent and accountable.
Mr. Larbi Abid, Vice-President of the National Constituent Assembly (“ANC”), opened the conference with an evaluation of the parliamentary experience in Tunisia, which he described as successful in producing a new constitution and a democratic regime with a system of parliamentary oversight over central government and local institutions. He added: “we can say that the ANC reached the high standard of exercising parliamentary oversight and driving the political system to attain better governance”.
Abid referred to international standards for parliamentary oversight that aim to guarantee a more horizontal democracy, in which the Tunisian people can more directly apply their own oversight since they are the ultimate owners of power and authority. The new Tunisian Constitution, he added, gives significant power to local authorities in order to guarantee better and more direct local oversight. In addition, these local institutions will function as “think-tanks” which can propose ideas and suggestions to central government and assist the central authorities to apply more effective solutions and ensure better and more effective governance.
Selomey Yamadjako, Deputy Resident Representative of UNDP in Tunisia, argued that the new constitution is a unique success, and that parliamentary oversight will continue to develop after the elections through:
– Monitoring government spending and finances;
– Fighting corruption;
– Setting up institutions to protect the independence of the electoral process;
– Freedom of audio-visual media; and
– Supporting the rule of law.
The issue of parliamentary vs. presidential systems and their efficacy in promoting oversight was raised by Mr. Dick Toonstra, Manager of the Office for the Promotion of Parliamentary Democracy in the European Parliament who argued that oversight is less strong under the presidential system and it is more advanced under the parliamentary one.
Toonstra insisted that social accountability practiced by society, and the sharing of information about government practices, strengthen the system of oversight. He stated that citizens should have the power to take decisions through these institutions and that democracy is not a static but a dynamic process: “Checks and balances are fundamental to guarantee democracy and a political culture that believes in oversight…In all new forms of government we must make sure that parliament has an important role to play, in monitoring institutions, helping in the building of parties and civil society bodies and fighting corruption…We need a constitution with clear standards, we need a parliament with powerful bodies, but we need also the capacity to practice oversight. We must create a system of how we share data and how we use it to inform and facilitate active consultation and analysis.”
The Chief of the International Relations Department of the French National Assembly, Francois Duluc, explained that France has a semi-governmental and semi-parliamentary system, so the government is accountable to parliament. The Assembly has the role of monitoring executive institutions and establishing specialized bodies to strengthen this oversight. He described the procedure known in France as “the question of confidence” which is a regular procedure by which the government requests the confidence of the parliament. In addition there are two sessions every week in which the government is questioned, aired on the internet and national T.V channel “France 3”. He added that every year there are over 3000 questions posed by 577 deputies to the different ministers. These questions are published in the official journal of the parliament. There are also a parliamentary T.V channel and a parliamentary website that are accessible to citizens to follow the work of the parliament.
The parliament also contains several specialized commissions, whose reports are published systematically every 3 months. With regards to financial monitoring, the Finance Commission has the power to monitor the activities of ministers and their budgets. Its Rapporteur is a member of the opposition party to the President, in order to ensure balance. The parliament also has the power to monitor the nominations to official positions made by the President of the Republic.
Habib Khedher the General Reporter of the Tunisian Constitution and Member of the ANC, gave an overview of the constitutional texts relating to parliamentary oversight. He argued that a broad Assembly with wide powers and strong extended oversight leads to the limitation of despotism and dictatorship, especially in the Tunisian historical context of broad executive powers.
The new Constitution contains broad parliamentary powers of monitoring in relation to the executive branch – parliament can monitor government initiatives and scrutinize legal bills. The parliament can also grant or withdraw confidence from the government. Its oversight is not limited to the government but extends to the President of the Republic, through the Constitutional Court. The oversight powers of the parliament are more limited with regards to the judicial branch. The Constitution also gives powers of oversight to the parliament over the five independent commissions set up under the Constitution – the Electoral Commission, Human Rights Commission, Audio-Visual Communications Commission, Commission for Sustainable Development and the Rights of Future Generations, and Commission for Good Governance and Against Corruption.