Tunisia’s cabinet formation drags on amid ‘struggle of wills’

Tunisian President Kais Saied and parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi see themselves endowed with different forms of legitimacy.
Sunday 16/02/2020
Tunisia’s prime minister-designate, Elyes Fakhfakh, addresses the media during a press conference in the capital Tunis. (AFP)
Who blinks first? Tunisia’s prime minister-designate, Elyes Fakhfakh, addresses the media during a press conference in the capital Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Elyes Fakhfakh has shuttled for weeks between the presidential palace in Carthage and the parliament building in Bardo amid a protracted cabinet formation process reflecting a wider tug of war for leadership.

Fakhfakh negotiated with parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who is also president of the Islamist Ennahda Movement, and Tunisian President Kais Saied in at least five meetings in two days. He was expected to unveil the proposed cabinet February 14 but postponed the announcement.

Fakhfakh, who had positioned himself as "the president's man," increasingly found himself clashing with Ghannouchi, who seemed intent on thwarting Saied’s design to play a greater political role.

Analysts said Ghannouchi, speaker of a fractured parliament, is jockeying for wider control of the of government’s policies beyond the cabinet formation process. Eying a larger share of power, Ennahda has shifted alliances and tactics several times. "In politics, it is only natural to change course," Ghannouchi said.

Islamists do not want to yield to political formations that have fewer seats in parliament nor do they want to relinquish political leadership of the country to the president.

"At the essence of the problem is a struggle of wills, especially the wills of the president and the speaker of parliament,” analyst Zyed Krichen wrote in Le Maghreb magazine. “Each wants to impose his sole leadership for the 5-year term pretending to be shielded by one form of legitimacy or the other."

Ghannouchi’s deputies warned that Fakhfakh could face difficulties if he ignores Ennahda’s demands for a larger share of the cabinet. The Islamist party wanted to include Qalb Tounes in order to lessen the role of other parties in government.

Fakhfakh had left Qalb Tounes, the second-largest party in parliament after Ennahda, and the Free Destourian Party, led by anti-Islamist lawyer Abir Moussi, out of his planned government, hoping to gain support from “pro-revolutionary” formations, including Ennahda, to win parliamentary acceptance for the cabinet.

“I do not consider them (Qalb Tounes and the Free Destourian Party) to be on the path of the revolution or to meet the people’s expectations regarding the road ahead,” Fakhfakh said in his first news conference as prime minister-designate.

Most political groups in parliament had rejected a government proposed by the previous Prime Minister-designate Habib Jemli, who was nominated by Ennahda, dealing a severe blow to the party and showing its growing isolation.

Before the vote, Ennahda leaders had boasted about their ability to get parliament to endorse Jemli’s 42-member cabinet but it was voted down, 134-72.

The vote against the Jemli cabinet signalled a sudden shift of political fortunes in favour of Fakhfakh and Saied, who took centre stage in the government formation process. They face the risk of snap elections if Ennahda and other parties withhold their endorsement of their proposed cabinet.

The deadline for a parliamentary vote on the new cabinet is February 20.

However, Ghannouchi’s position weakened among allies inside Ennahda and with other parties as dissent against his iron grip on control became public.

Having received virtually no votes in the legislative and presidential elections, Fakhfakh latched onto the electoral legitimacy of Saied, who won the presidential race with more than 70% of the vote.

“All parties voted for Kais Saied because he embodies values and principles of the people, except those two parties (Qalb Tounes and Destourian),” he said.

Fakhfakh’s push to form a cabinet without Qalb Tounes and the Free Destourian Party was based on the assessment that the parties toeing “the path of the revolution” could together provide the support of at least 140 MPs, 31 votes more than a parliamentary majority.

Ennahda was counted among those parties because it had voted for Saied and its leaders had previously ruled out any alliance with Qalb Tounes.

But Ghannouchi and Ennahda reversed tack, citing the “national interest” and the imperative of “political inclusiveness” as it assailed Fakhfakh’s approach and pressed for the inclusion of Qalb Tounes in the government.

“The cabinet lineup presented by Fakhfakh cannot win the confidence of Ennahda,” said Abdelkrim Harouni the head of Ennahda’s Choura Council shortly before Fakhfakh was to announce his planned government.

With 54 deputies in parliament, Ennahda saw itself in a better position to determine the outcome of the negotiations than the three smaller parties trying to determine the course of the cabinet formation, since they had the support of only 51 MPs.

Ennahda, sensing Fakhfakh's precarious position, wanted a larger share of the cabinet.

“Ennahda proposed its brightest cadres for positions in the proposed cabinet but Fakhfakh dismissed them without justification,” said Harouni. “Ennahda defends a government of national unity, not out of backing one party or another but only to avoid a repeat of the backfired experience of Jemli.

“We call on Fakhfakh to include Qalb Tounes and Al-Karama (Coalition) in the government. This is not a tactical ploy or to an attempt to put pressure. It stems from a constant and principled stand to include all parties,” he added.

The brinkmanship game could continue until the last moments if Fakhfakh seeks a confidence vote for his proposed cabinet without Ennahda's backing.

Together with Qalb Tounes and other allies, Ennahdha could amass 114 votes and Fakhfakh would be left with 103 votes of which only 60 are confirmed -- not enough to win a vote of confidence.

Ennahda is indicating it does not fear new elections. With its support, a parliamentary committee readied a draft proposal to raise the vote threshold for MPs to 5% in future elections. The move, seen as potentially expanding Ennahda's electoral representation at the expense of smaller rivals, is sparking concern over Islamists' ultimate ambitions over the Tunisian political scene.

Zouheir Maghzaoui, leader of the People's (Ach-Chaab) party accused Ennhada, February 15, of "blackmailing" Fakhfakh and of behaving as if political power is "spoils system."