UPDATE: Long-delayed Tunisia constitution to be put to vote

AFP , Friday 24 Jan 2014

People cheer and wave national flags as they celebrate the third anniversary of autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's downfall, in Habib Bourguiba boulevard in downtown Tunis January 14, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

Tunisian lawmakers are to vote Saturday on adopting a long-delayed new constitution, seen as crucial to getting the democratic transition back on track more than three years after the revolution.

"The vote will be held tomorrow, Saturday," Mofdi Mssedi, spokesman for the speaker's office, told AFP on Friday, a day after parliament completed its review of each article in the draft constitution.

The time of the vote has yet to be determined, but the charter needs the approval of two-thirds of the 217 assembly members to be adopted.

That would pave the way for the appointment of a caretaker cabinet of independents headed by premier designate Mehdi Jomaa, after the ruling Islamist party Ennahda agreed to hand power to a technocrat administration, under a deal to end months of political deadlock.

Jomaa's government will be tasked with leading the country to parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled to take place later this year.

"A plenary session will take place on Tuesday or Wednesday for a vote of confidence in this new government," parliament speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar told Tunisian radio.

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

Ennahda's veteran leader Rachid Ghannouchi hailed the draft charter as a "historic achievement" which he said would enable the establishment of the first democracy in the Arab world.

"We are at an advanced stage of the (democratic) transition, all that remains is to officially adopt this historic document and fix the date of the next elections," Ghannouchi said in a statement.

"We should be proud of what has been achieved, and translate that into ending the interim period and making Tunisia the first Arab democracy."

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

Islam is not mentioned as a source of legislation, although it is recognised as the nation's religion and the state is committed to "prohibiting any attacks on the sacred," while freedom of conscience is guaranteed.

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

And the charter also upholds gender equality and the rights of women "without discrimination", and commits the state to promoting equal representation in elected bodies, something unprecedented in the Arab world.

"It is a progressive constitution, responding to the hopes of the revolution... and laying the foundations of a modern state," said assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar, while recognising that "there could be improvements."

If the constitution is approved on Saturday it would then be formally promulgated by President Moncef Marzouki, outgoing Islamist premier Ali Larayedh and Ben Jaafar, with the signing ceremony planned for Monday.

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

The political parties have sought to avoid that outcome so that they can maintain the elections timetable and end the crisis gripping Tunisia since the assassination of two opposition MPs by suspected jihadists last year.

The national assembly was elected in October 2011, nine months after the popular uprising that toppled strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and touched off the Arab Spring.

But its mission to adopt a new constitution within one year was disrupted by bitter divisions between Ennahda and the secular opposition, coupled with jihadist violence and persistent social unrest.

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