New party launched in Tunisia with Chahed leading from behind

Chahed has faced criticism from political opponents and Islamist allies, who claim he is forging a “state party” ahead of legislative and presidential elections this year.
Sunday 24/02/2019
Bottom-up approach to governance. Selim Azzabi, general coordinator of Tunisia’s new political party Tahya Tounes, at his first news conference in Tunis, February 21. 			    (AFP)
Bottom-up approach to governance. Selim Azzabi, general coordinator of Tunisia’s new political party Tahya Tounes, at his first news conference in Tunis, February 21. (AFP)

TUNIS - Supporters of Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed laid out plans to advance a new political party, Tahya Tounes, but it is unclear whether the party can overcome divisions in the country’s secularist ranks.

Despite Tahya Tounes being widely described as “Chahed’s party,” its founding members have yet to confirm whether Chahed might officially join as leader of the party. For now, he will be leading from behind.

Chahed has faced criticism from political opponents and Islamist allies, who claim he is forging a “state party” ahead of legislative and presidential elections this year.

The controversy comes at a delicate time for Tunisia, which is facing a lingering economic crisis, political uncertainty and growing polarisation between Islamists and secularists.

“Tunisia’s political transition is in trouble,” said the International Crisis Group in a February report. “There is reason to fear that the country may backslide from its post-2011 democratic opening ahead of presidential and parliamentary polls at the end of the year.”

The report warned that tensions between secularists and Islamists could morph “into violence before elections.”

Chahed, 43, a secularist who broke with Nidaa Tounes last year, could lose his position as head of government if he fails to retain support from the Islamist Ennahda Movement. Ennahda, which has the most seats of any party in parliament, thwarted an effort by Nidaa Tounes last year to remove Chahed as prime minister.

However, statements from Ennahda officials indicate the party could be changing its stance. On February 17, Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi raised questions about his party’s future support for Chahed.

“We are in consultations with all parties about whether the current government will lead the country during the elections or be replaced by an elections’ government or a cabinet of technocrats,” Ghannouchi said.

A second attempt to oust Chahed from power could throw Tunisia into even murkier waters and deepen the rift between secularists and Islamists.

Chahed has weathered numerous chapters of unrest during his three years in office and is thought to be weighing a run for president in December.

Tahya Tounes, formed January 27, emphatically backs Chahed as prime minister and said it plans to put forward an innovative platform to be competitive in this year’s elections.

Selim Azzabi, a former chief of staff of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and who is Tahya Tounes’s general coordinator, said the party would be organised on a bottom-up approach to governance.

He said members would vote on party leaders on March 2, selecting the heads of 370 local offices in town districts and villages across the country before electing 33 regional offices.

Party members will vote at party offices with contenders offering competitive programmes and ideas, said Azzabi. Vote monitoring will be overseen by independent figures not affiliated with the party — Chawki Guedass, a law professor and head of a privacy protection agency, and Najla Braham, a judge.

“It is a strong message to rebuild the bridges of trust and confidence between the Tunisians and politics,” said Azzabi. “The measures we take to build the party are part of the necessary guarantees for the citizen that his voice counts and can make the decision.”

To refute accusations that Chahed is using his position to advance the party’s fortunes, Azzabi said: “The head of government has not taken part in a single meeting or activity of Tahya Tounes.”

Pressed on whether Chahed would be the party’s candidate in presidential elections, Azzabi did not deny the possibility but said: “The party is being built. One thing at a time.”

“Our efforts, energy and attention are now in building the party. We are not thinking about the elections now,” he added.

“The focus of the head of the government is on the government’s affairs and needs of the Tunisians. That gives us a respite and a chance to build a new political movement that does not depend on a leader.”

Azzabi’s remarks made it clear that Chahed would not be in Tahya Tounes’s leadership lineup at least for now.

Parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for late this year.

Azzabi stressed that Tahya Tounes was not against any other party, including Ennahda or the leftist Popular Front.

“Tahya Tounes aims at tackling one big issue that faces Tunisia: building a strong party,” he said. “You can win control of the parliament, government, the presidency and municipalities but you can do nothing in terms of change and reform if you do not have the belt of political support from a strong party.”

Embarking on a membership drive before the elections, Tahya Tounes will be likely drawing members from the very fractious constituency of Nidaa Tounes, which was founded by Caid Essebsi.

Its future and that of Nidaa Tounes are closely tied. Their ability to challenge the Islamists will depend on how effectively secularists can reorganise before elections whatever the party banner they adopt.

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