Tunisia faces uphill task forging stable government after polls

An Ennahda alliance with Islamist radicals could upend the party’s strategy of accommodating the West.
Saturday 12/10/2019
A member of Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections at a vote-counting station a day after the parliamentary election, October 7. (DPA)
The dice are loaded. A member of Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections at a vote-counting station a day after the parliamentary election, October 7. (DPA)

TUNIS - The Islamist Ennahda Movement won first place in Tunisia’s parliamentary elections, claiming 52 seats in the 217-member legislative body, official results indicate.

However, the outcome of the vote could leave Tunisia at a political impasse that hampers efforts to fashion a stable government to overcome the country’s economic crisis and streamline a political system widely seen as cumbersome.

The eight political groups with which Ennahda could stitch together a government together won 73 seats, making a potential coalition total of 125 seats, counting Ennahda’s elected MPs. That would be 16 more than the barest majority in the Assembly of the Representatives of the People.

“A stable government needs a minimum of two-thirds of the 217, roughly 145 seats. To have a safety leeway and be able to lead the country and complete the transition process,” said Lotfi Zitoun, a leading Ennahda figure.

Among the parties that Ennahda could possibly convince to work with in a coalition government is the centre-left Attayyar Addimocrati (Democratic Current), which requested the Interior, Justice and Public Service portfolios as a precondition for participation — a very difficult demand to satisfy.

Attayyar has 22 MPs, the third-largest parliamentary bloc overall and the most among the eight tentative Ennahda allies.

The radical Islamist al Karama coalition, whose leaders call themselves the “revolutionary wing of Ennahda,” won 21 seats. An Ennahda alliance with Islamist radicals could upend the party’s strategy of accommodating the West. Al Karama seeks an apology from former colonial power France for “its crimes” during the colonial period, a challenge to Ennahda’s stated approach of trying to win acceptance in Europe as a “Muslim Democrat” movement.

Ennahda would also face a tough task convincing Tahya Tounes, the party of Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, to join it in any coalition government. The party, which won 14 seats, has said it prefers to join the opposition.

The second-largest group in parliament, Nabil Karoui’s Qalb Tounes, which won 38 seats, has also rejected an alliance with Ennahda.

Karoui was released from jail, where he had been held for 48 days on accusations of money laundering and tax evasion, the day the Independent High Authority of the Elections released the provisional results of the parliamentary elections. He is competing against university law lecturer Kais Saied in the presidential runoff October 13.

Ennahda reiterated its support for Saied as the candidate of the “revolutionaries.” Karoui has been dubbed by Ennahda leaders as representing “a reincarnation of the old regime and an extension of corruption and abuse of the people’s interests.”

Ennahda dismissed speculation that it played a role in Karoui’s release just as it denied reports it had a part in his arrest. Karoui blamed an Ennahda “judiciary wing” for keeping him behind bars since August 23.

There had been rumours of an agreement under which Karoui would become president, Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi would be speaker of parliament and an independent economist would be supported by both Ghannouchi and Karoui to lead the cabinet. That scenario has been increasingly proven implausible.

In the first round of presidential voting, Saied and Karoui finished ahead of seemingly powerful candidates, including Chahed, Defence Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi and interim parliament Speaker Abdelfattah Mourou, Ennahda’s candidate, in a display of voters’ anger and frustration against the ruling establishment.

The turnout of 41.4%, versus 65% in 2014, for the parliament election was another indication of that mood. Female and young voters seemed to have shunned the legislative elections. Official figures indicated that 36% of voters were women and only 9% were in the 18-25 age bracket.

Ennahda had been part of various government coalitions with secularists since 2011 but those groupings failed to pull the country from its social and economic crises of high of inflation, indebtedness and unemployment. However, the party seems to have benefited from its support for Saied, drawing back much of its voter base for the parliamentary vote that had shunned Mourou in the presidential election.

From jail and outside, Karoui focused on attacking Ennahda and ruling out a coalition with it.

“We had seen that Ennahda did nothing to benefit Tunisia. Ennahda destroyed all political parties that had struck an alliance with it. We will never be an ally of Ennahda,” said Karoui.

“We will not join political Islam in a coalition government. We will remain open towards all other political parties like Attayar even when it backs now Kais Saied. Nothing prevents us from working together in the parliament when we stand for the same ideas and values.”

Karoui warned secularists and other anti-Islamists that Saied would meet a political fate similar to provisional President Moncef Marzouki’s.

Marzouki, an ally of Ennahda in government from 2012-14, lost two bids to be re-elected.

“If Kais Saied becomes president, Ennahda will have the presidency of the parliament, government and the office of the head of state. With my all respect to Kais Saied, he will be their arm at the presidency like what Moncef Marzouki did,” Karoui said.

The political developments leave many Tunisians wondering whether the elected leaders will be able to deal with the worsening social crisis. Progressive activists expressed concerns about the shift to the right in the parliament.

“The new parliament is frightening not only by its fractioning but especially by the turn to the right it is drawing for the country in the next five years,” said writer Abdelhamid Largueche.

“It is frightening because the most radical and adventurous currents of the ‘Jihadist Salafism’ are amply represented in the legislative body,” he added, saying he deplored the weak presence of secularists.

Former Tunisian Central Bank Governor Mustapha Kamel Nabli said: “The main lesson from these elections is that the political system is bankrupt. It does not answer to the needs of Tunisia. “It (the system) is dysfunctional and unable to resolve the fundamental issues of Tunisia.”

Reforming the system might be more difficult with Ennahda and Islamist allies relatively strong in the parliament. Saied seeks to make it more complex with his proposal of down-top democracy based on local councils of “people power.”