Tunisia’s president picks former finance minister to lead cabinet

Only the approval by parliament of Fakhfakh's formation would prevent snap elections.  
Tuesday 21/01/2020
Former Tunisian Finance Minister Elyes Fakhfakh attends a meeting in the constituent assembly in Tunis in this December 25. (Reuters)
Former Tunisian Finance Minister Elyes Fakhfakh attends a meeting in the constituent assembly in Tunis in this December 25. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Tunisian President Kais Saied selected former Finance Minister Elyes Fakhfakh as prime minister-designate to end a fraught process of forming a government.

Fakhfakh’s candidacy is at the mercy of a rambunctious parliament, which has one month to approve a new government to prevent snap elections.

Fakhfakh faces the handicap of weak performance in previous races. He was dubbed by local media “Mister 00” for having garnered taken only 0.3% of the vote in last September’s presidential election and is challenged by the absence of any representatives from his social-democratic Ettakatol party in parliament.

The October elections produced a fractured parliament that, 11 days ago, rejected a government proposed by a prime minister candidate designated by the leading party in the legislative body, the Islamist Ennahda Movement.

“The appointment of Fakhfakh is the culmination of a series of consultations with the political parties, national organisations and proposed personalities by political groups as candidates for prime minister,” the presidency said in a statement.

The statement laid the responsibility on the political parties and parliament for endorsing Fakhfakh and his proposed government or facing elections if they rejected him.

Fakhfakh, who has degrees in engineering and business administration, served as minister of finance and as minister of tourism under previous Islamist-led governments. During election campaigns, he defended liberal platforms, including the legalisation of soft drugs and gay rights.

Fakhfakh was expected to gain the votes of most parliamentary alliances because members seem reluctant to relinquish their seats and deal with new elections. Many Tunisians see the possibility of another round of voting as an uncertain gamble amid a worsening economic crisis and social pressures as well as looming security threats from Libya's strife.

“In total respect of the willingness of the electorate in the parliamentary elections and the proposals made by the political parties, this government will not be that of the president because it is the parliament that will grant it the confidence vote,” the presidency added in its statement.

Fakhfakh prevailed over approximately 25 other candidates in 24 lists submitted by political parties. He was shortlisted with Fadhel Abdelkefi, a former economic development, investment and international cooperation minister, and Hakim Ben Hammouda, a former finance minister.

Abdelkefi, who resigned from the government led by led by caretaker Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, is a leading figure of Qalb Tounes, a party led by media tycoon Nabil Karoui.

Chahed called Karoui’s group the “macaroni party” for using a charity scheme to attract voters. Karoui assailed Chahed as “dictator” after Karoui was detained for 48 days in August on tax evasion and money laundering charges.

When Abdelkefi joined the 42-member cabinet proposed by Ennahda, Karoui and Chahed closed ranks as like-minded secularists against the influence of Ennahda.

This time, Fakhfakh was proposed to Saied by Chahed’s Tahya Tounes with the backing of centre-left Attayar ad-dimokrati. Abdelkefi was shortlisted as a candidate for prime minister by Qalb Tounes and Ennahda.

Qalb Tounes is called by Attayar ad-dimokrati and other parties the “reactionary reincarnation of the old regime” and sees any alliance with Qalb Tounes as “normalisation with corruption.”

Ennahda’s leaders share the “revolutionary” narrative but struck a deal with Qalb Tounes to get Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi elected speaker in November.

Ghannouchi tried to win Qalb Tounes’s support for the failed Islamist-appointed cabinet.

The selection of Fakhfakh means Saied nodded to the “revolutionary” path that brings together the Islamists and other anti-old regime factions to make the approval of the prime-minister designate cabinet a foregone conclusion.

By picking Fakhfakh, Saied skirted a confrontation with the parties of “revolutionary choice.” The constitution entitles him to name a candidate outside the party lists, leaving leading parties to back the new government or risk fresh elections.

Saied, who won 70% of the vote in October, campaigned on an anti-establishment pledge to change both the regime into direct democracy and the electoral law that pin powers on party politicking.

The presidency’s statement made it clear that Fakhfakh is the choice of political parties, not the president. It implicitly conveyed the message that the implementation of the president’s own programme is on hold.

A future government needs broad support from political parties and employer groups and trade unions to deal with the challenges of Tunisia as it strives to revive growth, restore state authority and a rekindle a spirit of hard work among the population after nine years of government instability and economic stagnation.

The state budget underscores the economic difficulties and the struggle facing a future government. One-fourth of the budget will go to the payment of the foreign debt while 60% is allocated to pay salaries, leaving about 13% of the nation’s budget to finance development projects.

Tunisia’s national savings rate shrank from 15.7% as a proportion of GDP in 2011 to 8.5% last year, leaving the country dependent on growing debt to keep the bureaucracy afloat.

Tunisia’s debt swelled from 40% of GDP in 2010 to 75% last year with short-term debt tripling during that period amid an average economic growth rate of 1% the past nine years.