Tunisia's long road to a new government

There are concerns that political bickering between Tunisia’s main parties will obstruct parliament’s vote of confidence on the government of Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh.

al-monitor Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Elyes Fakhfakh (C) leaves for a meeting with Tunisian President Kais Saied (not pictured) in Tunis, Tunisia, Feb. 15, 2020.  Photo by REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi.

Feb 25, 2020

Nearly five months following Tunisia’s Oct. 5 parliamentary elections, the country is still struggling to form a government. Prime Minister-designate Elyes Fakhfakh finally submitted his list of proposed ministers to President Kais Saied, and parliament is to vote on the Cabinet lineup Feb. 26. But even now the bitter political wrangling has not subsided, raising questions about whether parliament will vote in this government and avoid the risk of fresh elections.

On Jan. 10, the previous prime minister-designate, who had been nominated by Ennahda, lost his confidence vote. Habib Jemli's very long list of some 43 technocratic ministers was rejected by 140 votes out of 219, and Tunisia found itself once again in political limbo, with outgoing Prime Minister Yousef Chahed holding the fort.

The responsibility of choosing a new prime minister-designate then fell to the president. On Jan. 20, Saied chose an outsider, Fakhfakh, who served as tourism minister and then finance minister during the first post-revolution troika government. He is the leader of the center-left Ettakol party, which has no seats in parliament. 

Meanwhile, hopes of political unity were immediately dashed when Fakhfakh announced that his proposed government would not include Qalb Tounes, the party holding the second largest number of seats (38) in parliament.

At first, the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, which holds the largest number of seats in parliament (52), appeared magnanimous, gently warning Fakhfakh in a Shura council statement Jan. 26 “to expand consultations to include the various parliamentary blocs in order to provide a broad political belt.” The party added that it is ready to fight another election round should there be yet another vote of no confidence.

Enahda took a big hit from Qalb Tounes in the January vote that rejected its nominee and his 43 ministers. Yadh Elloumi, a senior member of Qalb Tounes and a member of the party’s political bureau, told Al-Monitor, “Why do you need 43 ministers, it is too much.” He said his party also opposes a government of technocrats. Qalb Tounes announced ahead of the Jan. 10 vote that it would vote against the Jemli government, and other parliamentary blocs followed suit.

Fakhfakh, for his part, took the path of exclusion in choosing his Cabinet. Shortly after he was designated, he dismissed the possibility of working with Qalb Tounes, declaring he would work with the so-called social democratic parties, such as Mohammed Abbou’s Democratic Current and Echaab (The People's) Movement — which holds 15 seats in parliament — as well as Youssef Chahed’s Tahya Tounes (14 seats).

With Qalb Tounes, the Karama Coalition and the Free Destourian Party left out in the cold, the risk of a second vote of no confidence appeared probable. A second failure to approve a government could, under the constitution, lead the president to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections. A survey published by polling company Sigma Conseil on Jan. 25 showed that in snap elections,16.6% of voters would vote in favor of Abir Moussi’s Free Destourian Party followed by Ennahda with 15.9%. 

Abdelkarim Harouni, the head of the Ennahda Shura Council, told Al-Monitor, “Ennahda is very aware of the rise of populism in Europe and wants to avoid these problems by ensuring a strong government of unity.”

Ennahda had previously ruled out any collaboration with Qalb Tounes. But the head of parliament, Ennahda’s Rachid Ghannouchi, has been playing the role of mediator between Fakhfakh and alienated parties, mainly with Qalb Tounes’ leader Nabil Karoui, who lost to Saied in last year's presidential election. On Feb. 5, Ghannouchi declared that any newly proposed government “would not pass without Qalb Tounes.” 

However, when Fakhfakh finally announced the proposed list of ministers, it had two ministers proposed by Ennahda — while Qalb Tounes remains on the sidelines and considers whether to vote in the new government. Ennahda, which had been championing the need to include Qalb Tounes, seemed to change its tune, with Harouni saying in a statement that Qalb Tounes’ participation was no longer necessary for Ennahda’s support of the government.

Yassine Ballamine, a former editor of the now-defunct Huffpost Maghreb, said that one of the main barriers obstructing the formation of the government is “the composition of the Tunisian parliament, [which] is so heterogeneous that it seems consensus is extremely difficult to achieve.” 

Qalb Tounes’ political bureau member Yadh Elloumi told Al-Monitor, “It is not just Ennahda that is opposed to the exclusion of Qalb Tounes, it is practically all the other parties, including Tahya Tounes, Machrou3 Tounes and independents.” Elloumi, who has been persistently critical of Fakhfakh, added, “The responsibility of the head of government was much greater than that of the president of the republic.” Elloumi accused Fakhfakh of being a presidential pawn “content to be just a prime minister in a presidential system.”

 Fakhfakh has been widely criticized for being a “faux revolutionary” and an author of Tunisia’s economic woes. Fakhfakh was finance minister when Tunisia signed a loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund in 2013, which many see as the main reason behind Tunisia’s painful downward economic spiral and the country's delayed post-revolution economic recovery.

Initially, it seemed that the new government would be a coalition of minority parties from the social democratic bloc, including the Democratic Current, Tahya Tounes, Machrou3 Tounes and the People's Movement. However, on Feb. 10, a leaked list of proposed ministers was published in the press. Fakhfakh seemed to be repeating the mistakes of Jemli by choosing unelected technocrats, some of whom were suspected of corruption. It was seen by some, including the People's Movement, as a betrayal of the multiparty dialogues.

Ossama Aoudit, a member of the People's Movement’s political bureau, told Al-Monitor, “We initially decided to participate on the basis of a coalition of political parties.” Aoudit criticized Fakhfakh’s approach and attempts to create a nonpartisan government of independents, saying the “idea of independent ministers is a contradiction.”

After the leaked list was circulated, there was a frantic series of meetings between Fakhfakh and Ghannouchi. Ghannouchi, playing up to his nickname of “The Patriarch,” has been playing the role of the powerful elder statesmen bringing the divided factions together for talks, and even threatening to vote against the new government if Fakhfakh did not open the doors to Qalb Tounes. 

Ballamine said the political game at this point in time needs the two largest parties and Fakhfakh to come together. “Ennahda is losing ground, Qalb Tounes has lost all credibility with the electorate and Fakhfakh and his Ettakatol party have an incredible chance of returning to the circle of power,” Ballamine said. 

Tunisia finds itself at a political crossroads with political and personal differences applying major stress on a system that needs coherent governance, Aoudit said. “There’s a need for a stable government to rectify the social situation; it is necessary to have a government focused on social reform, transport and education,” he said. 

Both Ennahda and Qalb Tounes said they want a strong stable government of national unity. However, Aoudit — like others in the social democratic bloc — remains resolutely against Ennahda and Qalb Tounes, saying neither party has a social agenda. “Ennahda and Qalb Tounes are purely liberal; Ennahda is the new liberal party,” he said.

Harouni said the new government needed to “represent the choice of the people and not be a government of minority.”

Some minority parties such as the Karama Coalition and Afek Tounes are still threatening to vote against the government.

 Ballamine views the final choice of the government as a mix between a government of opportunity and a government of capacity.

“On the one hand, Fakhfakh has chosen people he considers well suited to certain ministerial roles, and then we have those who have been imposed by certain parties,” Ballamine said, adding that Ennahda keeps what it calls “a stranglehold on the university [higher education] and food sovereignty [agriculture].”

Ballamine added, “For me, this government will pass and whatever its future, Fakhfakh will be the biggest winner for addressing the situation in Tunisia.”

 Aoudit said he was not entirely convinced of the ministerial choices, “but we want it to pass because Tunisia can't stand the delay anymore.”

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