Tunisia bets on non-partisan government to break political deadlock

Tunisia bets on non-partisan government to break political deadlock
In-depth: After winning a vote of confidence and averting the dissolution of parliament, the new Tunisian government now faces the major challenge of ruling with a fragile political bedrock.
9 min read
02 September, 2020
Tunisia is experiencing an economic crisis. [Getty]

Tunisia got its second government in six months following disputes among political parties over the formation of the country's next administration, in a serious socio-economic scenario now worsened by the Covid-19 health crisis.

The technocratic cabinet of Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Hichem Mechichi won a confidence vote in parliament on Wednesday, thus avoiding having to go to early elections. 

Despite many political parties feeling side-lined during the government's formation, parliamentarians appeared to be guided by the need for an executive in times of a pandemic and economic instability.

"The government formation comes at a time of political instability and the people's patience has reached its limit," the head of government told parliament at the opening of the debate. He stated that the new government would focus on "social and economic questions and respond to the urgent concerns of Tunisians."

PM Mechichi, an independent himself, unveiled his cabinet of mostly non-partisan technocrats last week, after bypassing talks with political factions in a move to "present urgent solutions" at a time when the country is grappling with a flagging economy further battered by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Tunisia got its second government in six months following disputes among political parties over the formation of the country's next administration

"We will try to ensure that this government interacts directly with all components of the political spectrum as well as with political parties for the benefit of Tunisian citizens," the premier said on the day he announced his executive. 

The new PM, who served as interior minister in the government of Elyes Fakhfakh, was appointed prime minister last month by President Kais Saied after Fakhfakh resigned over allegations of a conflict of interest with his business ties, and mandated to form the new cabinet within one month. 

He is the third head of government since the legislative elections last October, which resulted in a deeply fragmented parliament. Secretary-General of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), Noureddine Taboubi, called the new ruling body the "last hope". 

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The government line-up is comprised of 28 members, including 25 ministers and three secretaries of state, eight of whom are women, most of them are unknown figures. It is a small governmental team whose makeup clearly reflects presidential preferences. 

Around 40 percent of the selected ministerial nominees are legal experts or university professors. Some sovereign ministry posts are filled by individuals close to Saied, namely his old colleague Ibrahim Bartaji, a university teacher specialised in public law and administrative law, who was handed the defence portfolio.

Othman Jarandi, a former adviser for diplomatic affairs to the president, was nominated again to be in charge of the foreign ministry, and Taoufik Charfeddine, who led Saied's presidential campaign in Sousse, was chosen for the interior minister posting. 

Other prominent nominees include Mohamed Trabelsi, appointed minister of social affairs, who served in the same ministerial position under Youssef Chahed for six months and was previously deputy secretary-general in the General Tunisian Labour Union (UGTT), Mohamed Boussetta, the new justice minister, former general prosecutor of the Court of Appeal, Ali Hafsi, re-appointed minister in charge of relations with parliament retaining the post he occupied under Fakhfakh, and Fethi Sellouati, assigned to the education ministry, who previously served in a leadership position in the UGTT. 

With the view to revamp the government and revive the economy, the ministries of finance, investment and state property were merged into a single department led by liberal economist Ali Kooli, CEO of Arab Banking Corporation (ABC Bank) in Tunisia. 

Tunisians are fed up with seeing the names of the same politicians - most of whom are tainted by some allegation or another - appear over and over again at each new government formation process

"Since 2011, we've seen large governments with responsibilities dispersed among too many ministries, without anyone accountable. It's a positive thing to have a reduced team, based on competencies, sticking together," Nadia Chabaane, a member of the political bureau of the centre-left Al Massar party, said expressing hope that cabinet members would put aside the wrangling that has characterised the Tunisian political scene until today. 

The social-democratic representative stressed that the chosen ministers need to perform their functions not as technicians but individuals equipped with political experience, able to manage a team and build trust among its members. 

Zachary Burk, North Africa analyst at Eurasia Group, observed that the fact that many of the ministerial nominees are relatively unknown to the public does not constitute a problem.

"Tunisians are fed up with seeing the names of the same politicians - most of whom are tainted by some allegation or another - appear over and over again at each new government formation process. That the new ministerial team strongly reflects the president's choice could make it easier for it to gain popular approval", he told The New Arab.

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The premier-designate aimed to propose a non-political cabinet to address the country's economic challenges whilst Tunisian parties were angered at how the administration was formed. 

On the other hand, Ennahda and other parties had expressed the need to approve the government to avoid dragging the already crisis-hit state into disruptive early elections, with no guarantee they would retain their same quotas. The Islamist party (54 MPs) which has the largest parliamentary bloc but nowhere close to a majority, announced just hours before the scheduled confidence vote that it would back Mechichi's administration. 

Ennahdha, which had repeatedly demanded a "political" government, as opposed to a technocratic one, appears to have lost political clout in recent months, especially after the failure of its government to secure a vote of confidence last January and a motion to withdraw confidence from its leader and Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchiearlier in July. The most recent opinion poll by Sigma Conseil, released on 14 August, showed Ennahda ranking second at 21.9 percent in public support, behind the Free Destourian Party (PDL) at 35.8 percent.  

"It [Ennahdha] has little interest in heading for new elections in which they could lose their first place in parliament, or lose their key ally Qalb Tounes, which they need in order to form coalitions in parliament and to have manoeuvring space, especially in an increasingly hostile political environment," Eurasia Group's analyst Zachary Burk said. 

The Tunisian economy contracted by 21.6 percent in the second quarter of this year - the biggest downturn seen in 23 years

Qalb Tounes (27 MPs), headed by businessman Nabil Karoui, had suggested that it would support the announced government, in part because it wanted outgoing prime minister Fakhfakh to finally go, and also to avoid an election repeat that could weaken its influence and potentially leave it with less seats than the PDL. 

Tahya Tounes had expressed support for the technocratic cabinet provided it establishes an emergency response to the coronavirus to reduce its economic and social repercussions. 

PDL's head Abir Moussi announced on Tuesday that her party would not give its confidence to the cabinet voicing "several reservations" on the composition of this government as well as its programme. 

The Democratic Current (Tayar), with 38 MPs, resolved not to give its trust to Mechichi's line-up. It had criticised the procedure of building his cabinet deeming it "undemocratic".

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The leftist People's Movement (Echaab) and the Islamist Dignity Coalition (Al-Karama) said they would also vote against it. The plenary session for vote of confidence was held amid a scuffle for influence between the president and major political parties. 

Although President Kais Saied had proposed Mechichi as prime minister, Tunisian politicians said he later dropped his support, underlining the potential for tensions between the presidency and government. Officials from parties said the head of state had asked them to vote against Mechichi's cabinet and to instead continue with a caretaker government.

By establishing a non-political cabinet, Mechichi hopes to move past the political impasse brought by the escalation of internal disputes between political parties which Tunisian citizens accuse of focusing on partisan interests at the expense of the country's welfare as more of them have come to distrust politicians' promises of the past 10 years.

Chabaane had warned it would be "irresponsible" on the part of the various political parties to vote against the proposed executive in the current scenario. "The country is facing an unprecedented economic crisis, Tunisians need reassurance. It's time for those in charge to get on with their job and find the most solid and viable solutions for all," the Tunisian politician argued.

In her view, having a "clear vision" about the plan the upcoming government has for the country as well as the ability to communicate the roadmap to the public will make the difference. "Any Tunisian is willing to make sacrifices as long as he knows what the country's direction is," she emphasised. 

There's going to be a lot of expectations on this government. But coming up with a plan that is actually implementable and can deliver quick results is going to be very difficult

Protests have become an ordinary occurrence over economic stagnation, widespread unemployment, lack of investment for development, declining living standards, poor public services including healthcare, electricity and water services.

The Tunisian economy contracted by 21.6 percent in the second quarter of this year, compared to the same period last year, due to the Covid-19 crisis - the biggest downturn seen in 23 years - and unemployment rose to 15 percent in the second quarter, according to the state statistics institute. Tourism revenue in the first six months of this year dropped by more than 50 percent from the same period of 2019. The Central Bank of Tunisia predicted that by the end of the year, the economic recession will lead to a 4.4 percent decline in GDP.  

"There's going to be a lot of expectations on this government. But coming up with a plan that is actually implementable and can deliver quick results is going to be very difficult," Burk argued pointing to deep structural reforms the North African badly needs. 

Mechichi, for his part, was first confronted by the great challenge of pulling together a politically diverse coalition to secure parliamentary approval amidst a complex and turbulent scene. After winning confidence, thus averting the dissolution of parliament, he now faces the major challenge of ruling with a fragile political bedrock. While trying to break the political deadlock and appease the tensions between the different political forces, he is unlikely to resolve the partisan infighting which could jeopardise efforts to pass the reforms needed.

"Aside from the usual party politics, the (increasingly entangled) relationship between presidency and parliament is the dynamic with the most likely long-term impact on the country", political scientist Max Gallien tweeted during yesterday's parliamentary debate. 

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec