Nidaa Tounes freezes prime minister's membership as infighting heats up

Chahed, who is rumoured to be weighing a presidential bid next year, seems to be keeping his options open.
Saturday 15/09/2018
Tunisian Prime minister Youssef Chahed (2nd-L) gives a speech prior to a confidence bill during a plenary session at the Tunisian parliament in the capital Tunis on July 28, 2018. (AFP)
Tunisian Prime minister Youssef Chahed (2nd-L) gives a speech prior to a confidence bill during a plenary session at the Tunisian parliament in the capital Tunis on July 28, 2018. (AFP)

TUNIS - Nidaa Tounes, Tunisia’s main secularist party, froze the membership of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed amid heightened infighting within the secularist camp.

The move is expected to exacerbate the splintering of secularist forces and adversely affect their ability to halt the Islamist  party's momentum ahead of crucial elections next year.

Nidaa Tounes announced its decision to "suspend" Chahed's membership after party leaders met late on September 14.

Nidaa Tounes, led by Hafedh Caid Essebsi, who is also the son of President Beji Caid Essebsi, is spearheading a campaign to oust Chahed, whose power hinges mostly on Islamist backing. However, the prime minister is trying to widen his support by seeking the backing of key members of Nidaa Tounes.

The Islamist Ennahda party is a partner in the governing coalition, reached as part of an “entente” between Ennahda’s chief, Rached Ghannouchi, and President Beji Caid Essebsi to secure government stability.

Nidaa’s senior officials first threatened to fire Chahed following his response to a party questionnaire that sought clarification over his loyalty to the president and the party and his own political vision.

Chahed replied September 12 by saying: "I have no time for this questionnaire. Today I’m busy with the draft budget for 2019 and the following day my attention will focus on the beginning of the new school year.”

Even by the unbridled standards of politicking since Tunisia's 2011 uprising overthrew authoritarian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, it is unusual for Tunisia’s political leaders, especially those in key governing positions, to exchange such jibes in public.

Nidaa Tounes nominated Chahed as prime minister almost two years ago with the aim of improving the country's economic and social climate and thus bolstering the party's chances in parliamentarian and presidential elections scheduled for 2019.

Jockeying among rivals in Nidaa Tounes hit a new low in recent weeks when party leaders assailed the government for allegedly sending interior ministry “spies” to gather information on a Nidaa Tounes meeting attended by government ministers.

A senior party official even warned Tunisians that a deepening crisis fueled by Chahed clinging to his position could force the military to stage a coup.

Chahed hit back at his rivals in Nidaa Tounes and their allies in the Tunisian General Trade Union (UGTT) for hindering his government's work.

"The government would have done better if there were no forces pulling it back,” Chahed said on September 14, in reference to the infighting within Nidaa Tounes and the UGTT's opposition to proposed reforms.

“We are not clinging to the government out of greed for power but we are responsible people and we cannot throw in the towel at a time of negotiations with international lenders and at a time when the country needs foreign funding to keep its economy afloat,” he added.

“We have to submit the draft law of finance to parliament on October 15 to be approved by December 10,” he said, suggesting that if he steps down, it would not be until weeks later.

Chahed, who is rumoured to be weighing a presidential bid and preparing to form his own political party, seems to be keeping his options open.

Top Nidaa Tounes officials loyal to Hafedh Caid Essebsi stepped up their attacks on Chahed after he met earlier this month with eight former party MPs who quit Nidaa Tounes and formed a rival group in parliament loyal to the prime minister.

"The head of the government is destroying the party and splitting it," said Nidaa Tounes official Khaled Chawkat, a former minister who described those leaving the party as “rats.”  "It is an attempted putsch within the party."

Nidaa Tounes has seen numerous top officials and deputies join offshoot groups that have failed to present themselves as viable alternatives to the party or a counterweight to Ennahda.

Karim Baklouti, a leading pro-Chahed activist in Nidaa Tounes, said he expected the bloc backing the prime minister in parliament to “grow to some 60 deputies.”

“Such strengthened group in the parliament will allow for a better stability in the government,” he contended.

The suspension of Chahed's membership in Nidaa Tounes  is not expected to have an impact on government functions, but is likely to further political instability and harm the government's ability to carry out needed reforms.

When Nidaa Tounes was founded by Caid Essebsi in 2012 as a "modernist alternative to Ennahda, hopes and promises of stability and prosperity followed. But all proved to be elusive.

Headed by the charismatic veteran politician Caid Essebsi, Nidaa first won the support of a broad range of constituencies, including supporters of Tunisia's “Destourian” movement (those faithful to the legacy of the country's first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba) , trade unionists, leftists and independents, as well as ex-members of  Ben Ali's government and the now-dissolved Constitutional Democratic Rally party.

The various factions set out to present an alternative to Ennahda, which was widely mistrusted even after it presented itself as a “Muslim Democratic” party and attempted to distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and Turkey.  A large segment of the public remains sceptical of Islamists' ability to manage the economy based on their time in power following 2011.

In 2014, Nidaa Tounes won 85 seats in the 217-member parliament, with Ennahda trailing in second with 69 seats.

However, Nidaa now struggles to retain the loyalty of some 40 deputies and maintain the allegiance of a constituency that brought it into power.