Tunisia reattempts to form new government amid political deadlock
With consultations on the composition of Tunisia's next cabinet underway, meetings between the parties involved in the discussions over the government programme started on Tuesday.
Newly designated Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh, who is tasked with forming the new executive, confirmed last week that he will constitute a mini-government with no more than 25 ministers to ensure efficiency and effectiveness.
He clearly said the governing coalition will be built only from those parties with "revolutionary" credentials and based on their degree of support to President Kais Saied in the presidential runoff.
In a press conference on Friday, Fakhfakh specified that he will not include Qalb Tounes, chaired by Nabil Karoui, and the Free Destourian Party (PDL), led by anti-Islamist lawyer Abir Moussi, in the ongoing consultations to form the upcoming cabinet, although they are the second and third largest blocs, respectively, in parliament.
"All parties voted for Kais Saied, because he embodies values and principles of the people, except those two parties," he said explaining that they are "not in the path of people's expectations" at this stage, especially after the 2019 elections.
The PM-designate is heading a government plan that involves four main parties of the "revolutionary" path, namely the Muslim Ennahda party, the Democratic Current party, the People's Movement and Tahya Tounes, alongside some non-partisan parliamentary blocks and independents.
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He explained that the goal is to garner the widest political support to implement the government programme and not just win the confidence vote at the parliament.
"He is positioning himself as the President's prime minister, i.e. closer to the President and his electorate than to the Parliament and its parties," Tunis-based political analyst Youssef Cherif tweeted on Friday, commenting on Fakhfakh's intent to form a government based on presidential legitimacy.
The PM denied excluding any political party, and that the parties that will not be interested in building the new government will be in the opposition.
The Free Destourian Party had refused from the outset to take part in consultations, whether with previous Prime Minister-designate Habib Jemli or Elyes Fakhfakh. The PDL's leader said on Saturday that her party will not vote confidence in the "government of failure" and the former Troika minister, alluding to the newly appointed premier, that had laid the foundations of financial and economic collapse.
Qalb Tounes, for its part, criticised Fakhfakh's move for its "exclusionary approach with no link to democratic practice". The party also appealed to the head of the cabinet to consult with all political forces on the composition of the new government.
Khalil Zaouia, head of the centre-left Ettakatol party, pointed out that the choice of not having the two large political groups in his planned cabinet is "not anti-democratic", but rather goes in line with the "general direction" set out by the president which reflects a different vision from that of the two excluded parties.
On the other hand, the Ennahdha movement, which enjoys a parliamentary majority, on Monday called on expanding consultations on the formation of the next government to include the various parliamentary blocs in order to set up a "national unity government" with social and democratic content.
Parliament Speaker and Ennahdha party leader Rached Ghannouchi earlier stated that exclusion from consultations will only be of the parties that excluded themselves, referring to Moussi's party, and firmly objected to Qalb Tounes not being in the next ruling coalition. His own party's "neo-revolutionary wing", however, deems Qalb Tounes a throwback to the country's "corrupt past".
"What is incomprehensible is that Ennahdha is now almost demanding access to the consultations for Nabil Karoui's party," Lamine Benghazi, project manager at the political observatory Al Bawsala, noted, reminding that several months ago the same party had hardly campaigned for electoral law changes that would exclude certain candidates, including Karoui, from the presidential election.
The project director suggested that Ennahdha fears a shift of power to Kais Saied that could weaken its political influence in the legislative assembly.
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With a president largely perceived as a "free spirit", he said, it is not guaranteed that Saied will align himself with the biggest party systematically.
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As an appointee of Ennahdha, Jemli distanced himself from the proposal of the president's government. He aimed for a unity coalition reaching out to all party representatives, trying to satisfy them all.
His "handicap", in Zaouia's view, was that of being designated by the Muslim party with reluctance from multiple sides of the political board. Also, critics found Jemli was not up to the job either as a politician or a technocrat.
The former prime minister-designate failed to win parliament's endorsement after his proposed government was rejected earlier this month. A setback for the movement that, moreover, faced criticism following Ghannouchi's controversial visit to Turkey a day after the government failed.
Since 2011 the moderate Islamist party has been the most organised political force in Tunisia, but its internal tensions have been rising to the surface more often recently. In October's legislative vote, Ennahdha emerged as top party in parliament despite gaining fewer seats than it had won in the last election.
The current nominee, Fakhfakh, has been assigned by the president to form the new executive within 30 days in accordance with the constitution. He has until February 20 to assemble his team that will then need to obtain approval in the people's assembly.
The 48-year-old engineer was a senior official in the social democratic Ettakatol party from which he resigned to fully commit himself for the government formation. He served in the 2012 "Troika" government, an alliance between Ennahdha and other parties.
Some see Fakhfakh well-placed to tackle economic dossiers. "He's someone pragmatic, capable of grouping the different parties around a programme of reforms," Ettakatol's secretary-general commented. "People expect him to put an ambitious yet achievable programme in place without populism nor adventurism."
For others, his mandate as finance minister coincided with a period of belt-tightening after the signing of a first loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) designed to oversee the implementation of unpopular economic reforms.
"One challenge for the new PM may be his association with the Troika government which was cooperative with the IMF, and is seen by a lot of Tunisians as having failed in many respects," observed Nate Grubman, a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University with a focused interest in North Africa.
Benghazi recognised that Saied's choice of the former finance minister reflects the president's position of independence vis-a-vis political parties, his "anti-system" political line. It is also coherent with his "social-democratic" orientation in terms of political economy.
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If the forthcoming government gets a no-confidence vote there will be fresh elections, which many parties would like to avoid not to lose their seats in parliament in case of dissolution. That would play in Fakhfakh's favour as parties would be encouraged to vote for his government.
The new cabinet is likely to earn the 109 seats needed for majority approval in the 217-member parliament.
"Are these parties ready to allow the president's cabinet to fall and cause another election to be held at a time of political stalemate and empty state coffers?" Al Bawsala's staff questioned.
As part of the government formation, Zaouia highlighted the PM's difficult task of "acting as arbitrator" in putting together a functioning team, and nominating people to fill the ministerial posts while parties compete over the different ministries.
The highly fractured parliament further complicates the ongoing negotiations, and threatens to make the new government's existence complex too. Even if Fakhfakh's executive gets approved, the parliament's majority will still be very heterogeneous with political groups, including radical Islamists, secularists and leftists.
As Tunisia's new government is in the making, with the formation process dragging, the country needs urgent economic reforms after successive governments have failed to meet people's demands since the 2011 uprising.
Nearly a decade of low growth, high public debt, widespread unemployment, high inflation, diminished purchasing power for citizens and declining services have taken a heavy toll on many Tunisians.
"One common critique for many governments Tunisia has had is they are not organised around a shared vision of change for the country, especially with regards to its economy," Grubman said.
He argued that economic programmes of political parties are often either "very general collections of slogans" or documents created by teams of experts "that do necessarily represent the vision of party members".
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.
Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec