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GLOBALIST | 29 FEBRUARY, 2020

Tunisia - The Politics of Coalitions

Will the present government be able to deliver?


Tunisia finally has a new government that won a vote of confidence on 27 February 2020, months after the Parliamentary elections held last year in October 2019. The country is the sole enduring success of the Arab Spring of 2011 sustaining the democratic polity that was established after the peoples protest overthrew the dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and disbanded his party the RCD.Other Arab Spring countries — Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Yemen — have either returned to dictatorship, like Egypt, or are mired in war. The Tunisians have preserved the democratic system despite a flagging economy with its important revenue earner ,tourism, affected by jihadists attacks. A singular feature of Tunisian democracy has been televised presidential debates — a first in the Arab world.

In the elections for Parliament and the Presidency in 2019 the people of Tunisia demonstrated their fatigue with and disdain for the old established political parties and powerbrokers. The most startling result was in the two rounds of the Presidential elections in September--earlier than scheduled because of the death of 92-year-old President Beji Caid Essebsi, who was elected in 2014-- and November 2019 when the Tunisians gave their vote to independent Kais Said and to Nabil Karoui a media moghul imprisoned for corruption and tax evasion. And this in a fray that featured many established politicians.

The final runoff between the two left Tunisia with Kais Said as its new President. Said, a 61-year-old law professor and expert on constitutional affairs, with no political affiliation was supported by Ennahdha. His campaigning consisted going door-to-door seeking support for his conservative platform.

Tunisia's electoral commission had approved 26 candidates, including two women, to run in the presidential election, out of a total of 97 individuals who wanted to contest. Among the 26 approved were Ennahdha’s Vice President Abdel Fattah Mourou; former President Moncef Marzouki who was interim president from 2011 to 2014 and was seeking the post for a second time with the backing of opposition alliance Another Tunisia; the then serving Prime Minister Youssef Chahed who had left Essebsi's secularist Nidaa Tounes (The Call of Tunisia) after falling out with Essebsi’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi. Chahed’s war on corruption was beginning to affect prominent businessmen close to the party and its executive director Hafedh, including media magnate and presidential candidate Nabil Karoui. Chahed had broken away from Nidaa Tounes taking with him more than half of the party's parliamentarians, including a breakaway faction to form his own party Tahya Tounes.

In the Parliamentary elections in October 2019 the people voted in a manner that left no option but for the country to have a coalition government. The turnout was low as compared to the more than 50 percent in 2014 with young people saying they did not trust the politicians and chafing under increasing unemployment and stagnant living standards.

In the 2014 elections Nidaa Tunis, took 37.6% and 86 seats. It joined with Ennahda in a coalition government, which disintegrated.

The 2019 elections gave Ennahda 52 seats in the 217 seat Parliament making it the largest party. It therefore said that it had the right to name the Prime Minister but the proposal was not accepted by potential coalition partners Attayar with 22 seats, Achaab’s Movement with 16 seats and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s Tahya Tounes party, with 14 seats. Only the Conservative Karama coalition, with 21 seats, agreed.

In the discussions with other parties Ennahda had excluded two parties from talks: Heart of Tunisia, with 38 seats led by the media magnate Nabil Karoui, and the Free Constitutional Party led by Abir Moussa, with 17 seats, which opposed the Islamists. Thaya Tounes also said it would not join a Cabinet led by Ennahda and called for a government of “national interest” focused on urgent economic reforms. Any government to win a vote of confidence would need 109 votes.

Ennahda had named a junior minister Habib Jemli as its choice for Prime Minister. Jemli said that Tunisia’s next government should focus on reforming the economy and restoring hope among frustrated youth. He presented his designated cabinet to Parliament and lost the vote of confidence 134 to 72. The President, using the ten days allowed to him, to name another PM, chose Elyes Fakhfakh, a former tourism and finance minister, to form a government. Fakhfakh had run in the country's presidential election, securing just over 11,500 votes. A member of the centre-left Ettakatol party, he had a 30-day period to form a coalition government. Failure to win parliamentary approval would force President Saied to dissolve the House and call for a fresh election.

Fakhfakh had drawn up a list for his cabinet which included members from Ennahda, Tahya Tounes, Achaab , Attayar, El Badil parties and independents. His initial list had been rejected by Ennahda but following discussions he was able to secure an alliance with the party. With the support of the largest party in Parliament Fakhfakh had sought a vote of confidence. And after long debates he got the vote—129 in favour and 77 against.

What would the new government need to do to make its mark? The economy and meeting the aspirations of the youth have to be the top priority . Inflation has taken a toll with prices in Tunisia rocketing while and unemployment remains stubbornly at 15 percent, higher than pre-revolution levels. Young people have been the hardest hit by the lack of jobs, with youth unemployment at 33 percent nationally and surpassing 50 percent in some regions. Living standards have been hit following public spending cuts mandated by an International Monetary Fund-backed loan program. Regular protests have erupted over poor economic conditions.

Tourism had been a major revenue earner. But terrorist attacks claimed by Islamic State had impacted on this sector. In 2015, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for two attacks — in the resort town of Sousse and at the Bardo Museum Tunis — that killed mostly foreign tourists. In 2016 Islamic State fighters crossed over from Libya and attacked the border town of Ben Guerdane. A few weeks before President Essebsi’s death, the group claimed two suicide bombings in Tunis.

Tunisian and Western analysts claim that Islamic State and al-Qaeda have been engaged in local recruitment in the impoverished interior and border areas. Tunisia’s socioeconomic crisis is said to be the cause and the lack of jobs and opportunities had led thousands of Tunisian youth to go to Syria and Iraq, more than from any other country. Many had joined al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and, with their defeat hundreds of Tunisian militants have returned to an economy worse than when they left. Tunisian and regional officials worry many more will return to spread their ideology and violence unless there is an upturn in the economy and the availability of opportunities.

Will the present government be able to deliver? The IMF is said to be waiting for the new government to start talks over a sixth review of its IMF loan programme. Tunisia needs to borrow about $3 billion internationally in 2020 to meet spending commitments. This has to be coupled with a reform programme that does not create unnecessary hardship for the people. The challenge to Tunisia’s democracy lies in fashioning a polity that demonstrates its ability and willingness to meet the aspirations of the youth who comprise 60 percent of the population.

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