Chad changes constitution – from semi-presidentialism to a presidential system

Today Chad’s National Assembly is scheduled to vote on a new constitution that will change the country’s political system from semi-presidential to presidential. The text adopted in a cabinet meeting on April 10 is based on recommendations from participants in an eight-day forum held in March, boycotted by the opposition.

The outcome of the vote is fairly certain, given that President Idriss Déby’s party, the Patriotic Salvation Movement (MPS), controls a solid majority of seats – 117 out of 188 seats or 62 percent – in a legislature that has not been renewed since 2011. Two allied parties of the MPS hold an additional 14 seats (7.5 percent), totaling more than the two thirds required to adopt constitutional changes by legislative vote, without going through a referendum. The move to bypass a referendum is criticized by opposition political parties as well as civil society groups as “illegitimate,” notably given that the National Assembly’s mandate is itself questionable. Chadian Catholic Bishops have also called for a referendum, noting that “a large part of the Chadian population is unaware of what is happening.”

The new supreme law of the country will inaugurate the IVth Republic, replacing the previous constitution governing the IIIrd Republic in place since 1996. The 1996 text was a result of the 1993 national conference organized by Déby in an effort to legitimize his rule after ousting former President Hissène Habré in 1990. As was the case in other former French colonies in Africa that undertook political openings in the early 1990s, Chad adopted a semi-presidential constitution closely modeled on that of the Vth French Republic [May and Massey 2001, p.15]. It was amended in 2005 to remove presidential term limits, and again in 2013 to allow the president to belong to a political party and making it possible for the executive to remove judges.

So what prompted this change of constitution? Why abandon semi-presidentialism and return to a presidential system, given that the existence of a dual executive does not appear to have cramped Déby’s style thus far? Déby – in power since 1990 – has had an impressive list of prime ministers – incumbent Prime Minister Albert Pahimi Padacké is number 16. One of his predecessors – Delwa Kassiré Koumakoye – even served twice in the role, with 12 years of interval. On average, prime ministers of Chad have stayed less than two years (no one has reached three years). This frequent circulation has prevented prime ministers from establishing their own power base and ignite presidential ambitions. By completely eliminating the prime minister function, Déby does away with a position that could be used by a potential competitor to launch a bid for the presidency in the next election.

Déby promised during his campaign for reelection in 2016 to reintroduce presidential term limits [see previous blog post here]. The new constitution does in fact limit presidential terms to two, while lengthening their duration from 5 to 6 years. However, term limits are not retroactive, meaning that when Déby ends his current term in 2021, he can run for another cumulative 12 years.  This kicks the issue of succession a long way down the road. Déby – 65 years old today – would by 2033 be 81.

Changes, in addition to the removal of the prime minister post and the reintroduction of term limits, include:

  • Raising the age limit for presidential candidates from 35 to 45 years, leading to accusations of “gerontocracy” in a country where life expectancy for men is 49 years and for women 52. The move is intended to “avoid us having our Macron,” quipped one observer on social media.
  • Making it easier for the president to dissolve the National Assembly: before, under the semi-presidential constitution, the president’s ability to dissolve the legislature required that the National Assembly dismiss the government twice in one year; now, the constitution only makes vague reference to “persistent crises between the executive power and the legislative power.”
  • Limiting the number of independent oversight institutions by reducing the Constitutional Council, the Court of Accounts and the High Court of Justice to chambers under the Supreme Court. The High Court of Justice in particular used to be an independent institution with responsibility for voting on the impeachment of the president.

So to conclude, Déby appears to have bought himself some peace of mind with the new constitution. He will be the sole leader of the executive, no longer having to change prime ministers every two years or so to keep the ambitions of potential challengers in check. The issue of succession is shelved for the next 15 years with the introduction of non-retroactive term limits, and the pool of potential contestants has been reduced significantly by the 10-year increase in the minimum age for presidential candidates. Finally, the ability of other institutions to check his powers while he prolongs his stay in the presidential palace has been reduced. The question remains whether popular dissatisfaction and the power of the street could succeed in bringing about Déby’s downfall, as happened in Burkina Faso when Blaise Compaoré sought to further extend his presidency. Déby has strong support among European powers and the US given Chad’s role as a lynchpin in the fight against terrorism. The US took Chad off its travel ban list earlier this month. The position taken by the Chadian security forces would be crucial for the outcome of any attempted uprising.

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