Tunisia’s government faces tough road even after winning confidence vote

Fakhfakh will face an uphill struggle to realise his economic reform agenda as he tries to hold together a fragile coalition.
Sunday 01/03/2020
Tunisia's Minister of Public Service Mohamed Abbou takes the oath of office during the country's new government swearing-in ceremony at the Carthage Palace outside the capital Tunis, Tunisia February 27. (Agence France-Presse)
Tunisia's Minister of Public Service Mohamed Abbou takes the oath of office during the country's new government swearing-in ceremony at the Carthage Palace outside the capital Tunis, Tunisia February 27. (Agence France-Presse)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s parliament has approved a new government, ending a months-long stalemate after presidential and parliament elections produced a fractured political landscape.

Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh secured 129 votes from the 217-member parliament in a vote on February 27. However, the vote total lower than that won by his predecessor, Youssef Chahed, who gained 167 votes four years ago, and the prime minister before him, Habibi Essid, who gained 164 in 2015.

Fakhfakh promised “a government of clarity to win the confidence of Tunisians” after eight governments had been unable to resolve the country’s economic crisis that has left many Tunisians suffering deteriorating living conditions and social hardships.

“I’m seeking genuine support, not an incomplete confidence vote, to bring about fundamental change in the country,” Fakhfakh said after intense debate in parliament that focused on his record as finance minister, his advocacy of liberal causes, including gay rights, and questions about his dual French-Tunisian nationality.

Fakhfakh won qualified support from enough MPs to secure his position but the debate outlined political battles that are ahead.

“We want you to be the [leader] of this government, not the prime minister of someone else,” said Ennahda Movement MP Sahbi Attig, in reference to the political ties between Fakhfakh and Tunisian President Kais Saied, who nominated him.

“The role of the president ended when he appointed the most able personality to lead the government. After that, the government becomes the government of the people and the government of the parliament that lends it legitimacy,” Attig said.

Ennahda grudgingly endorsed Fakhfakh’s government after its proposed prime minister, Habib Jemli, failed to gain enough support. However, the development deepened the power struggle between Ennahda’s president — parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi — and Saied.

Ennahda pushed for a greater share of the cabinet and conditioned its support for Fakhfakh’s government on the inclusion of Qalb Tounes, a party it previously described as “corrupt.” Ennahda has the most seats in parliament, with 54, while Qalb Tounes, with 38, has the second most.

Fakhfakh, however, did not include Qalb Tounes or provide Ennahda with other concessions. Ennahda voted for the government, not wanting to risk new parliamentary elections or see Saied effectively rule by decree for several months.

The vote suggested that at least a few Qalb Tounes deputies supported the proposed government, hedging against the risk of a failed confidence vote that could lead to snap elections.

The government’s ministers include legal expert Imed Hazgui, a former head of the national institution ensuring open access to information, as defence minister and Hichem Mechichi, a former legal adviser to the president, as interior minister. Noureddine Erray, Tunisia’s ambassador to Oman, was named foreign minister.

Abdellatif Mekki, Ghannouchi’s most trusted ally inside Ennahda, was named public health minister. Lotfi Zitoun, a former Ghannouchi adviser, was selected minister of local government. Two party-affiliated figures, Anouar Maarouf (Ennahda) and Mohamed Abbou (Democratic Current), are to head the transport and public service ministries, respectively.

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

“The president did not tell me about why he picked me as prime minister,” Fakhfakh told parliament. “He gave me no order about the government’s political direction. I understand very well my prerogatives, which I will fully put to the service of Tunisia’s interests.”

However, Fakhfakh’s government runs the risk of collapsing if it loses the backing of Ennahda.

Experts said Fakhfakh will face a struggle to realise his agenda as he juggles to hold together a fragile coalition that includes partners with disparate economic visions. Ennahda, for instance, supports economically liberal policies, while the Arab-nationalist Echaab Movement advocates for state economic control.

Most political parties share populist stances and will not advocate reforms that could cut government spending or public service recruitment.

Fakhfakh’s programme includes reining in inflation, alleviating poverty, reducing foreign debt, slashing the national budget and trade deficits and jump-starting economic growth.

Analysts said Fakhfakh had tried to “please everyone” to win the confidence vote.

“He was socialist, liberal, trade union activist, capitalist and Islamist at the same time. This was his strong area when he addressed the parliament. He skirted any polemics, antagonisms or conflicts,” said Business News magazine editor Nizar Bahloul.

“He was the opposite of Elyes Fakhfakh of 2012-13, when, as finance minister, he strained the public finances and burdened the state with debt. As an ally of the devil, he sowed divisions among the Tunisians,” Bahloul said in reference to Ennahda’s rule that included deteriorating socio-economic conditions and increased violence, including the assassination of two secularist opposition figures.

Since then, the democratic transition has advanced and the security situation improved but the socio-economic challenges remain.

“Fakhfakh attempted to make us forget the Fakhfakh of 2012-13. That was expected and that what was wished by many,” Bahloul said.