With economic crisis ahead, Tunisian parliament under fire
TUNIS - As Tunisia faces a looming economic crisis due to the fallout of the coronavirus crisis, there are growing calls for the dissolution of parliament, increasing pressure on the ruling class.
As anger mounts over alleged government mismanagement, the Islamist Ennahda Movement that has a majority in parliament is, particularly in the crosshairs. Its leader, Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, has come under fire from both secularist and Islamist figures alike for allegedly trying to shore up power and meddle with the country’s foreign policy agenda instead of forging solutions to the country’s pressing economic problems.
On June 14, Tunisian authorities prevented demonstrators calling for the dissolution of parliament and a change in the electoral system from accessing Bardo Square, where Tunisia’s parliament building is located.
Dozens of demonstrators, frustrated with the political climate, raised banners and shouted slogans denouncing the "poor performance" of parliament, particularly the deputies’ lack of interest in key national issues, including the fight against unemployment, poverty and the many forms of marginalisation and social injustice in the country.
The protesters also accused parliament of interfering in regional issues and wasting time on matters that they view as having little impact on the Tunisian public.
They denounced Ghannouchi’s foreign policy manoeuvres, accusing him of trying to drag Tunisia into international conflicts, notably the conflict in Libya.
In response to authorities’ move to disperse the gathering, demonstrators also denounced the violation of their right to peacefully protest, suspecting authorities’ move of being politically driven.
"The demonstrators had been harassed and prevented from protesting peacefully in front of the Parliament,” said the spokesman for Al Hirak National Salvation Front of June 14 Fathi Warfali.
He also accused Ennahda of using the Ministry of Interior and Bardo Municipality to ban demonstrations by closing all roads leading to Bardo Square.
Buses carrying protesters from Tunis were prevented from getting to Bardo, Warfali said, adding that their permit to protest had been cancelled at the last minute and warning that a call for civil disobedience would be issued if the demands of the National Salvation Front were not met.
Since early June, there have been several calls to dissolve parliament and stage sit-ins in Bardo Square after the formation of new groups, notably the 1st of June Coordination, the January 14 Front and the National Salvation Front of June 14.
The dissatisfaction with the current political system and anger over the deteriorating economic and social situation is expected to escalate in the future, especially after the grim outlook given by Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh.
Though Tunisians seem well aware of the challenges that lie ahead, a bundle of decisions announced by Fakhfakh June 14 is expected to exacerbate tensions between the ruling elite, the opposition and the general public, possibly leading to more protests, strikes and fresh calls for changing the political system.
Addressing the hardship Tunisia will face due to the coronavirus pandemic, Fakhfakh said his government had decided against the use of more external debt, noting that all new expenses would be funded only through internal loans.
He said that he will freeze increases in the wages of public employees because of the critical state of public finances, which was worsened by the coronavirus crisis.
The move, the first of its kind since the 2011 uprising, could spark a conflict with the country’s powerful General Labour Union (UGTT).
Having already reopened government offices, factories, shops, businesses, mosques, cafes and hotels after locking down nearly all normal business for months, Tunisia has so far recorded slightly more than 1,000 cases with fewer than 50 deaths.
The country’s success in controlling the pandemic has been largely credited to the new government’s swift and proactive response to the early threats of the pandemic.
However, the country needs an additional 4.5 billion dinars ($1.6 billion) of loans because of the coronavirus crisis and the government will seek it from the local market, Fakhfakh said in an interview with Attessia TV.
“External debt reached dangerous levels and now reached 60% of GDP, compared to 30% in 2013 and I decided not to continue in this way,” he added.
Tunisian authorities previously said the country’s economy will likely shrink this year by up to 4.3%, the steepest drop since independence in 1956. International experts say it could drop by more than 10% The tourism sector could lose $1.4 billion this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
To deal with the economic repercussions of the virus, Tunisia’s Ministry of Finance launched in May an electronic platform to receive requests from companies affected by the pandemic and that wish to benefit from the government’s support measures.
“Public finances are very critical and we cannot continue with the approach of increasing wages,” Fakhfakh said.
If the situation continues as it is, the government could be forced to reduce wages, he added.
Tunisia is under pressure from international lenders to freeze public sector wages, the bill for which doubled to more than 17 billion dinars ($6 billion) in 2020 from 7.6 billion dinars ($2.7 billion) in 2010 as part of measures to reduce its budget deficit.
But the UGTT says the monthly average wage of about $250 is one of the lowest in the world, with high inflation rates reaching 6.3% in May.
Earlier in June, the UGTT called on all national forces to rally together and focus on the major problems and challenges facing the country, warning that the economic crisis could threaten more than 400,000 jobs and that the situation had been worsened by the COVID-19 crisis.
“The UGTT is aware of the precarious economic and social situation in the country,” UGTT deputy Secretary-General Samir Cheffi said, calling on the various political stakeholders, national organisations and active forces in Tunisia to focus on “the burning issues of the country.”