Tunisian prime minister’s supporters launch new party

“We are born big, very big and much bigger than Nidaa Tounes,” said Selim Azzabi, Tahya Tounes general coordinator.
Thursday 31/01/2019
Tunisia’s Prime Minister Youssef Chahed attends a news conference in Tunis. (Reuters)
A “top-down” approach. Tunisia’s Prime Minister Youssef Chahed attends a news conference in Tunis. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Tunisian ministers, businessmen, parliament members and other leading supporters of Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed have established a new political party with the aim of winning a strong share of the secularist vote in elections this year.

“Tahya Tounes” (“Long Live Tunisia”) was announced January 27 from Monastir, the hometown of Tunisia’s post-independence founder Habib Bourguiba.

The party said it seeks to unify modernist forces around Chahed, who last year made an acrimonious split with the secular Nidaa Tounes party of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and which is led by his son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi.

“We are born big, very big and much bigger than Nidaa Tounes,” said Selim Azzabi, a former top aide to the president who is now general coordinator of Tahya Tounes.

“The new project is in a position of strength when compared to Nidaa Tounes,” said Azzabi. “The new party will compete in the elections with the support of representatives in 350 municipalities and ministers in the government, which is headed by Youssef Chahed.”

However, the party faces stiff resistance from Caid Essebsi’s allies in the secularist camp, as well as the country’s powerful trade unions and leftist groups. Caid Essebsi warned that “those who do not succeed when in power, harvest losses later in elections.”

In an interview with The Arab Weekly and Al Arab, Caid Essebsi accused Chahed of having a secret arrangement with the Islamist Ennahda Movement to run for president. Caid Essebsi described the prime minister’s government as an “Ennahda government.”

The split in Tunisia’s secularist camp raised questions about whether divided modernists could win the presidential and parliamentary elections.

“We should have in mind that political parties are established  not only because of  the desire of their founders,” said political analyst Zied Krichene.

“There is a specific alchemy in the creation of a party and there is a consistency between a party as political and election offer and a pent-up demand in society. A party that misses such demand perishes,” he added.  

“Nidaa Tounes for example did not grow as strong party only out of the desire of Beji Caid Essebsi and other leaders alongside him. Nidaa was born big party and succeeded because it met a demand bigger and deeper than this desire,” he said as he compared Nidaa and Tahya.

Nidaa Tounes performed well at the polls in 2014, bringing Caid Essebsi the presidency and earning the party a leading position in parliament. However, internal disputes, including high-profile departures, severely weakened the party, which has lost its lead in parliament to Ennahda.

Tahya Tounes hopes to replicate Caid Essebsi’s success of 2014 but with a “top-down” approach to governance to tackle the country’s problems. “Tunisians rally behind Youssef Chahed because they feel his sincerity as he is attacked from all sides because of his fight against corruption,” said Azzabi.

Chahed, 43, is Tunisia’s youngest prime minister since the country’s independence in 1956. Azzabi is of the same generation.

While Tahya Tounes is widely perceived as “Chahed’s party,” the prime minister did not attend the introductory announcement. His absence spared him criticism because the government has struggled to deliver relief to remote areas hit by bad weather and to strike deals with the country’s trade unions, especially while an ongoing teachers’ strike rattles parents across the country.

“It is unprecedented. No party’s creation has caused so much criticism and attacks since Beji Caid Essebsi announced the foundation of Nidaa Tounes,” said political writer Marouen Achour.

“The choice of the name and the selection of the town where this creation was announced on top of the political figures present at the event added to the signals that Tahya Tounes is set to compete against progressive parties for a field that had been ploughed over and over.”

“Thus, doubt arises about its chance of success. It did not satisfy the thirst for novelty, innovation and programmes,” he said.

To Nidaa Tounes loyalists, the new party represents a betrayal to Caid Essebsi, who picked Chahed to serve as prime minister in 2016 with the hope that he would strengthen the economy and improve Nidaa Tounes’s chances in elections.

Chahed’s backers argue that Nidaa Tounes failed because its leadership was “undemocratic” and “lacked clear organisation,” alluding to the challenges Hafedh Caid Essebsi has faced in leading Nidaa Tounes’s rank-and-file. The issue is expected to be a central discussion point at the party’s convention in March.

“Nidaa Tounes was founded upon a powerful vote-getting machine but it did not succeed in transforming itself into a party,” said Azzabi. “The new project will try to avoid that by preparing a solid ground for an organised party with a centrist popular and democratic constitutional orientation to be able to compete successfully in the upcoming elections.”

Walid Jalled, a parliamentarian and leading figure in Tahya Tounes, said the party would form a political grouping with Machrou Tounes, which is led by Mohsen Marzouk a former leader in Nidaa Tounes’s Moubadara (Initiative).

“The proponents of the new political project led by Youssef Chahed seek to win the majority in the parliament in the next elections to govern without alliance with other parties and be able to implement their own programmes,” Jalled said.

Anti-Islamists said they fear the new party could increase divisions in Tunisia’s secularist camp with no political benefits.

“The result will be unmistakable. The creation of the new party will benefit the opposite camp: the Islamists,” said Business News editor Nizar Bahloul.

The party’s name, Tahya Tounes, added to the controversy. Many expressed frustration on social media that a political party used a common patriotic slogan for its benefit.

A lawyers association plans to challenge the party name in court.

“The legal petition against the name is ready. All the necessary documents to back it in court are ready,” said Yassine Younsi, head of the Association of Tunisian Young Lawyers.

“The name Tahya Tounes is a national slogan belonging to all Tunisians and it should not the monopoly of a party,” he added.

Former Youth Minister Majdouline Cherni added: “It is the slogan of generations and generations of Tunisians who repeat it to express their emotions from the deep of their hearts. It is not a slogan for sale or political bargaining. Do not stain that slogan by exploiting it in your political wars.”