Lots of empty seats at the Constituent Assembly plenary (May 2, 2012)

Since last Thursday, the national Constituent Assembly has been discussing the national budget proposed by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali. Until yesterday, the assembly discussed the budget in a general fashion – today, assembly members are going through the budget proposal section by section. The general discussion took 5 whole working days, and over 150 members of the assembly spoke. Each assembly member had a 3 minute time limit (20 minutes per party).

What ended up happening over the course of these five days, however, only shows how inefficient the assembly can be. Assembly members were incredibly repetitive in their speeches – each echoing the other (especially when the speakers from the same party). Part of the reason why they were so repetitive is that since the conversation was carried on for five days, many members did not catch their colleagues’ speeches – tea, coffee, and cigarettes have a lot to do with why the assembly members can’t be found in the assembly room sometimes.

Often, assembly members were incredibly off topic. One representative would start talking about a university that was supposed to be established in el-Kef (which, to begin with, is a detail that should only be discussed in its proper framework and under the proper circumstances of debate), and another assembly member would find it pressing enough to respond at length. The pingpong nature of discussion was very partisan and was often interrupted by points of order and (at times entertaining) shouting matches.

What made matters worse are the 2 hour long lunch breaks. Of course, it was 2 hours on paper, but in reality most assembly members would only get back 3 hours later. Again, the tea, coffee, and cigarettes had a lot to do with that as well.

As of a few minutes ago, after the Constituent Assembly’s president Mustafa Ben Jaafar met with the presidents of each parliamentary block, and it was decided that speakers must submit any and all proposals in writing. Tjhe president of the commission will then decide which proposals to submit to a vote and draft them using the appropriate legal language. After the speaker’s list is exhausted, the assembly will move directly to a vote on the budget – no points of order will be accepted.

Further, identical proposals will not be accepted from two members of the same party. Proposals will be suggested on a section-by-section basis, and will be in the form of amendments or additions. However, it is still rather alarming that no time limit is imposed per speaker or per party. At this rate, the conversations will still take forever, and the risk of going off topic will be highly augmented. Filibustering – a political technique where parliamentarians speak at great length just to avoid a vote on a given proposal – has never been easier!

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