Special powers offer Tunisian PM opportunity to tackle crisis, show mettle

The vote of support by an overwhelming majority of 178 MPs was a rare moment of consensus and unity
Sunday 12/04/2020
A February file picture of Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh speaking to parliament. (DPA)
Special powers. A February file picture of Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh speaking to parliament. (DPA)

Analysis by Lamine Ghanmi

TUNIS - After a parliamentary vote allowing him to govern by decree for the next two months, Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh will be able to push ahead with the government's efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and assume his true political mantle.

According to experts, the legislative mandate will test Fakhfakh's leadership and crisis management skills as he strives to pull the country out of the health crisis and stop devastating social and economic consequences. He must also work under the backdrop of a heavily indebted economy and the persistent threat of jihadism.

Receiving a huge endorsement from Tunisia's 217-member parliament April 4, Fakhfakh can now focus on mobilising the country’s meagre financial resources and ensuring the synergies of business and civic elites to combat the  spread of the virus.

The vote of support by an overwhelming majority of 178 MPs was a rare moment of consensus and unity amid a fractured political class. It showed the waning influence of Islamist leader and Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, whose reservations about a special powers bill showed his willingness to block emergency action by the government in order to preserve power.

Fakhfakh will now use his special powers for two months to issue decrees needed to mobilise financial resources, including loan agreements, without consulting with parliament, authorise import deals, release prisoners from crowded jails or toughen the legal penalties for speculators in times of crises.

The vote of approval will give the prime minister the opportunity to be the leader of the country in its “war against an invisible enemy."

Ghannouchi and his allies in parliament initially tried to cut the time during which Fakhfakh is authorised to use special powers in half, a sign of a deepening power struggle between the country's main leaders --  the prime minister, the parliament speaker and the president.

But Fakhfakh deftly navigated the strained relations between the country’s leaders, reassuring the speaker that “no one is out there to grab the power of anyone else.” He also said his work will continue to be "monitored" by parliament and he would be willing to relinquish his special powers if they are not needed anymore in the fight against the pandemic.

At the same time, Fakhfakh clearly asserted his role as the government's leader during the emergency. He will assume that leadership for at least two months starting in mid-April.

If he demonstrates his ability to lead, Fakhfakh is likely to emerge as the leader needed by the country at a time of crisis and beyond, as Ghannouchi increasingly loses the trust of most political parties and the public at large while President Kais Saied has a difficult time demonstrating his own leadership skills even if his ratings remain high.

Fakhfakh has no significant partisan support base or strong support in the parliament but his calm demeanour and frank tone has won him support of Tunisians of all backgrounds.

“The war against coronavirus and its impact will be waged by a unified leadership,” said Fakhfakh, who has imposed a national lockdown and called for aid packages for those affected by the shutdown.

In reference to Ghannouchi and his allies who opposed the special powers, he added: “It has become clear that, for those sitting in the parliament, the only task is to erect obstacles in front of the government."

The prime minister's standing is also bolstered by the expertise of his ministers, especially Health Minister Abdellatif Mekki, whose hard work and compassionate outreach have boosted his standing within the Islamist Ennahda Movement, where he is the most senior figure at loggerheads with Ghannouchi.

“Everyone knows the deficiencies of the health structures of our county but they are standing out in this time of crisis like a famished mother who provides everything she can to her children,” Mekki told parliament as he defended Fakhfakh’s request for special decrees during the crisis.

In coping with the pandemic, Tunisia has to rely on a largely ill-equipped public healthcare system that is often underfunded and understaffed.

Political writer Kamel Zaiem said that Fakhfakh had emerged from the parliamentary showdown as the most powerful actor. “The prime minister escaped unscathed from the grips of the parliament which caused him some scratches but failed to tame him at the end," said Zaiem. "He emerged from the showdown with the least damage to be able to focus on the primary and fundamental task of fighting the disease."

“The confrontation between the two branches of government vying for control of the government’s powers underlined the lack of trust between the leaders,” he said.

“This political battle revealed the truth of those who tried to make the population believe that the parliament works for the welfare of Tunisians,” he argued.