Tunisian PM seeks allies in parliament for more leverage

Mechichi has sent messages to political parties reflecting his desire to avoid a new troika-like coalition that includes Qalb Tounes, Ennahda and the Dignity Coalition.
Friday 16/10/2020
Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi meets with People’s Movement MP Haykal Mekki, October 14, in Tunis. (Prime Minister’s office)
Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi meets with People’s Movement MP Haykal Mekki, October 14, in Tunis. (Prime Minister’s office)

TUNIS – Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi held consultations with People’s Movement MP Haykal Mekki on Wednesday evening, in a move that observers believe will pave the way for revamped negotiations between the head of the government and political parties.

The new negotiations are much-needed for Mechichi, who has reportedly been trying to reduce his government’s dependence on the two largest blocs in parliament, the Islamist Ennahda Movement (54 deputies) and its political ally Qalb Tounes (30 deputies).

In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of meetings between Mechichi and representatives from different political parties to discuss the country’s ongoing challenges.

The talks are also thought to have touched on internal politics, as sources close to Mechichi previously revealed he hoped to secure a strong parliamentary belt in order to avoid the fate of his predecessor, former Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh.

Last July, Fakhfakh resigned amid allegations of conflict of interest after it was revealed he held stake in a waste processing company that won government contracts worth $17.6 million

His resignation was a victory for Ennahda, which had been at odds with Fakhfakh over his refusal to expand the government to include its political allies.

Fakhfakh’s resignation led to weeks of political tensions at a time when the North African country was dealing with deep social and economic crises made worse by the coronavirus pandemic and confinement measures.

More than two months after being designated by President Kais Said as the new premier, Mechichi has worked to create a favourable climate for governance based on understandings and harmony between Bardo (the seat of parliament) and the Kasbah (the seat of government).

However, Mechichi’s efforts to maintain this balance have raised fears among Tunisians that the new government could be held hostage by Ennahda and Qalb Tounes.

These fears have only been compounded by open disagreements between Mechichi and Saied.

On Wednesday, Mechichi received Haykal Mekki, a representative of the Democratic Bloc — a coalition that includes the Democratic Current and the People’s Movement (38 deputies) — at the Kasbah.

According to a statement published by the presidency of the government, the meeting touched on the need to preserve public financial balances and the draft state budget for 2021, with an emphasis on how “to serve the interest of the Tunisian citizen.”

The meeting also dealt with socio-economic dynamics of the governorate of Gafsa, which Makki represents in parliament and has numerous developmental needs.

Mechichi expressed his personal desire to address the challenges in Gafsa and promised to hold a ministerial council for the benefit of the governorate next month. He stressed the government’s commitment to resolving outstanding problems in the governorate, especially those related to the University Hospital in Gafsa and the needed construction of a highway to connect it with other central cities.

The government’s statement avoided mention of ongoing consultations between Mechichi and political parties.

However, sources in the Kasbah revealed that the prime minister had indeed sent messages to political parties expressing his eagerness to cooperate with them in order to avoid a new troika-like coalition that includes Qalb Tounes, Ennahda and the Dignity Coalition.

Days after meeting with Mechichi, Makki spoke of new features of the country’s political landscape, indicating that a new political belt is currently being constructed around the prime minister to bring about a troika that includes Ennahda, Qalb Tounes and the Dignity Coalition.

“Some appointments confirm heading towards the formation of such a troika,” Makki said before addressing a message to the prime minister.

“Your strength lies in your independence. So be independent as you have said to Tunisians. You have composed a government of technocrats because the parties have failed to ensure a stable government (…) do not transform it into a government guided by a few parties which only seek to serve their interests.”

Mechichi’s meeting with Makki came as numerous politicians and figures, including leaders of the People’s Movement and former Education Minister Salem Labiedh, were reportedly infected with COVID-19, and as he faced growing criticism from numerous representatives of the Democratic bloc. Some speculated that the meeting was a way for Mechichi to test the pulse of the bloc.

Mystery surrounds the fate of political parties that could support Mechichi’s government in the coming period.

There is talk about the new troika’s (Ennahda, Qalb Tounes and the Dignity Coalition) preparations to announce an expanded front to support Mechichi. However, the prime minister is still struggling to find another alternative.

Ennahda is using Mechichi as an excuse to form this political front, which, according to observers, will also inevitably support the role of the Islamist party’s president, Rached Ghannouchi, as speaker of Tunisian parliament, as he recovers from facing a vote of no confidence in July.

On the other hand, Qalb Tounes, which has long faced accusations of corruption and feared political isolation, is looking for a new role within the government.

The main concern within political circles is what role the far-right Dignity Coalition could possibly play in the future.

This coalition, viewed by many as a shadowy political grouping of radical Islamists, won significant support in last year’s parliamentary elections after adopting violent discourse that further fragmented the country’s political class.

Observers believe that the coming days will be decisive in Mechichi’s drive to win parliamentary support for his government, which Saied wants to be independent from political parties and answer only to him.

Although it was Saied who proposed Mechichi as prime minister, Tunisian analysts say the president has since dropped his support, meaning there could be an even wider divide between the presidency and government.

The feud has ironically brought Mechichi closer to some parliamentary blocs, including Ennahda and Qalb Tounes, which now hope to negotiate adjustments to the cabinet lineup with the confirmed prime minister.

Mechichi previously held consultations with Hassouna Nassfi, head of the National Reform Bloc (17 deputies), and Hatem Malki, former head of the National Bloc (17 deputies), before reaching out to the People’s Movement and the Democratic Bloc.