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Will Tunisia’s parties come together to form a government?

The results of Tunisia’s legislative elections have raised questions about the future government and the alliances that will be formed, as the leading party, Ennahda, failed to receive a majority that would have allowed it to govern parliament.
Supporters of Tunisia's moderate Islamist Ennahda party celebrate, after the party gained most votes in Sunday's parliamentary election, according to an exit poll by Sigma Conseil broadcasted by state television, in Tunis, Tunisia October 6, 2019. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi - RC1569FBC4D0

TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections announced at a press conference Oct. 9 the results of the legislative elections held three days earlier. Ennahda came in first with 52 seats in parliament, followed by the liberal party Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunis) with 38 seats. The Democratic Current secured 22 seats and the conservative Dignity Coalition got 21 seats.

Many political leaders have voiced concerns about what they called the dilemma of forming a government in light of the leading party’s inability to obtain a majority — 109 seats out of 217 — and form a government by itself. Ennahda is now forced to seek other alliances to come up with 57 more seats.

Speculation over the difficulty of reaching consensus to form a government has increased with the rise of a politically and ideologically incompatible mix of parties and independents, some of whom belong to the conservative Ennahda and the Dignity Coalition, while others are affiliated with modern, liberal parties such as the Heart of Tunis, the Democratic Current and the Free Destourian Party.

Article 89 of the Tunisian Constitution says the president is to ask the party or coalition that won the most seats in parliament to form a government; the party or coalition is given a deadline of one month, extendable once.

The article says that if no government is formed within the time limit, the president is to consult with parties, coalitions, and parliamentary groups to select the person most capable of forming a government.

If this effort also fails, the president can call for new elections to be held within 45 to 90 days.

Ennahda leaders were quick to announce their firm rejection of an alliance with Heart of Tunis and the Free Destourian Party, and to exclude them from participating in consultations to form the next government, even if it means a new set of elections will have to be held. The leaders justified their stance by saying Ennahda strongly believes in reviving the values of the revolution and refuses to ally with parties tainted by accustations of corruption.

 Ennahda spokesman Emad al-Khamiri told Al-Monitor that it will be difficult to form a government in light of what he called a distracted parliamentary scene resulting from the elections.

He reiterated his party’s rejection of any alliance with Heart of Tunis — headed by losing presidential candidate Nabil Karoui — and the Free Destourian Party, led by Abir Moussa, the former leader of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s party. Karoui lost the presidential runoff Oct. 13 to Kais Saied, a conservative independent candidate, in a landslide. 

Meanwhile, Karoui announced his refusal to ally with Ennahda and with any party or coalition affiliated with political Islam in parliament.

Karoui, who was released Oct. 9 after spending months in detention on charges of money laundering and tax evasion, said in his first interview on the privately owned El Hiwar Ettounsi channel Oct. 10 that he would not enter a government led by Ennahda, noting that he will side with the opposition and will not be “Ennahda’s scapegoat.”

In 2014, the Nidaa Tounes party won a plurality with 86 seats and Ennahda had 69 seats; together they formed the government.

Nidaa Tounes, founded by Beji Caid Essebsi in June 2012, suffered a humiliating defeat Oct. 6 after winning only three seats in the legislative elections. Essebsi, who was elected president in 2014, died in office in July at age 92 shortly before his term was to end. Nidaa Tounes was plagued by differences among its leaders, and current Prime Minister Youssef Chahed defected to form Long Live Tunisia. The latter came in seventh place in the current legislative elections with 14 seats. 

Mohamed Essafi Jellali, a Long Live Tunisia leader, told Tunis Afrique Presse on Oct. 11, “We will not be a party to the Ennahda-led government and we will join the opposition.” 

Karoui had announced the possibility of Heart of Tunis allying with the Democratic Current. However, the latter rejected any alliance of the sort in a post published by Democratic Current leader Mohamed Larbi Jelassi on his Facebook page Oct. 11.

Speaking to Mosaique FM on Oct. 7, Democratic Current Secretary-General Ghazi Chaouachi called for the formation of a national salvation government with independent, nonpartisan members, acknowledging the difficulty of finding a platform of understanding between Ennahda and the Heart of Tunis in light of all the division in the parliamentary scene.

Political activist and former leader of the Movement Party Tarek el-Kahlaoui told Al-Monitor that consultations to form the next government will indeed be difficult in light of what he called sharp political tugging between the parliamentary blocs.

Kahlaoui believes that Ennahda is in an unenviable position, as it was unable to achieve a comfortable majority that allows it to dispense with alliances with other parties and independent coalitions.

In the midst of this division within parliament, Kahlaoui does not rule out the possibility of Ennahda and the Heart of Tunis finding common ground for rapprochement and dialogue despite their apparent differences, especially since Karoui was one of the architects of the famous consensus between Ennahda co-founder Rached Ghannouchi and Essebsi in what became known as the Paris meetings, which formed the basis for bilateral rule between these two parties over the past five years.

Ennahda said in an Oct. 10 statement that it had begun to shape the fundamentals of a plan under which the next government would be formed. It said this would be a starting point for dialogue with various political forces that could work together.

Meanwhile, many fear a worst case scenario in which elections would have to be held again, should a government not be formed in the next four months.

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