Tunisian Prime Minister rebuffs calls for resignation

In late June, leaked documents indicated that Fakhfakh owned shares in companies which won deals worth $15 million from the state.
Friday 03/07/2020
A file picture shows Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh speaking at the government’s office in Tunis. (REUTERS)
A file picture shows Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh speaking at the government’s office in Tunis. (REUTERS)

TUNIS – Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh, who is facing calls to resign that could potentially unravel the country’s fragile ruling coalition, said Thursday that he has no intention of quitting and intends to “fulfill the mission for which he was appointed.”

Fakfakh is currently under pressure due to conflict of interest allegations related to former business holdings. In an interveiw with Tunisian political website Nawaat, he stressed that he will continue to do his job as head of a “united” government, and face the country’s social and economic challenges.

Fakhfakh assumed the premiership in February after parliamentary elections in September produced a fractured political scene with no party taking more than a fourth of the assembly, leading to months of wrangling before a coalition was formed.

In late June, leaked documents indicated that Fakhfakh owned shares in companies which won deals worth $15 million from the state.

The leak is suspected of being part of a pressure campaign by the Islamist Ennahda party and its political allies to maintain a destabilising leverage over Fakhfakh’s government.

The prime minister has previously said that he would not concede to Ennahda’s demands to reshape the governing coalition so as to include in it the Qalb Tounes party and exclude the pan-Arabist People’s Movement, which has often refused to cooperate with Ennahda on parliamentary initiatives.

On Thursday, Fakhfakh reiterated the same stance, saying that there “will be no Carthage II,” a reference to a manoeuvre by the late former President Beji Caid Essebsi to replace then Prime Minister Habib Essid with Youssef Chahed.

“It is in no one’s interest to change the government. Now, we need to work hard with the current team to revive the country’s faltering economy,” Fakhfakh said.

He also warned that no investor or donor will offer to help Tunisia in the absence of political stability.

Earlier on Thursday, the Council of Ministers denounced in a statement “the slander campaign waged against the government and its leader during the last period,” affirming its attachment “to improve the political and social climate and to respect the principles of transparency and the rule of law.”

The council, which is chaired by Fakhfakh, affirmed its commitment “to government solidarity and the pursuit of action, by addressing the concerns of Tunisians, all categories combined, preparing for social deadlines and implementing the economic rescue plan.”

In the statement’s preamble, Fakhfakh addressed “the general political climate in the country, marked by the resurgence of political tension, the attempts to disturb the work of the government, undermine state institutions and influence public opinion.”

“The socio-economic situation and the challenges posed require that responsibility be assumed by all,” he said, calling on everybody “to avoid political tensions and to take advantage of the unity observed in the management of the coronavirus crisis  to begin the major reforms that are likely to change the lives of citizens.”

On Friday, government spokesperson Asma Shiri addressed the scandal dubbed “Fakhfakh Gate,” saying, “today there is confusion between alleged conflict of interest and corruption. Any term is, unhopefully, linked to the word corruption.”

Regarding Fakhfakh’s potential resignation, Shiri said: “This issue is not on the agenda… Because, it must be said that the government has succeeded in its fight against corruption. And it is a gain for Tunisia as a whole despite the obstacles the government has encountered.”

In a parliamentary session held June 25 to present a report on the body’s first 100 days in office, Fakhfakh told deputies he was ready to resign if any violation was proven, but added that he had sold his shares in the companies and rejected accusations of corruption.

Tunisia’s anti-corruption commission has said Fakhfakh did not inform the body that companies where he held shares had commercial deals with the state.

The commission’s head, Chawki Tbib, told parliament the firms’ contracts with the state should be cancelled.

Minister of State in charge of Civil Service, Good Governance and Fight against Corruption Mohamed Abbou said on June 23 that he had assigned a public watchdog to look into the issue and report back within three weeks, and that Fakhfakh had promised to step down if investigators found wrongdoing.

The row comes as Tunisia tries to put state finances on sounder footing after years of deficit spending and mounting public debt – issues that have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to government figures, the country’s economy is expected to contract by around 6% this year, as public companies flounder.

The trend is part of a deeper recession this year than the last official forecast of -4.3% made by the IMF.

Key sectors, notably tourism and textiles, are likely to be hardest hit, resulting in around 130,000 lost jobs and public debt hitting a “terrifying level” of 92 billion dinars ($33.5 billion).