Tunisia’s prime minister-designate to form coalition based on parties’ support to president

Critics contest Fakhfakh’s intent to base his future cabinet on presidential support instead of legislative legitimacy.
Sunday 26/01/2020
President’s man. Tunisian President Kais Saied (R) and Prime Minister-designate Elyes Fakhfakh, tasked with forming a government, at the presidential palace in Carthage, January 20.                      (AFP)
President’s man. Tunisian President Kais Saied (R) and Prime Minister-designate Elyes Fakhfakh, tasked with forming a government, at the presidential palace in Carthage, January 20. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Elyes Fakhfakh, charged with forming a new cabinet, signalled his intent to include in his governing coalition only political allies of Tunisian President Kais Saied.

Fakhfakh’s selection by Saied from a list of 25 candidates quickly put him at odds with parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who is also president of the Islamist Ennahda Movement, and with two secular political groups he excluded from his future cabinet.

Ghannouchi wants a government coalition backed by a larger parliamentary base, including Nabil Karoui’s Qalb Tounes but is opposed by his own party’s “neo-revolutionary wing” that considers Qalb Tounes a throwback to Tunisia’s “corrupt past.”

Not being part of any formation when elected to parliament in the last legislative elections, Fakhfakh based his choice of the political parties he plans to include in his cabinet on the parties’ “revolutionary” credentials and their degree of support to Saied in the second round of the presidential vote.

In his first news conference as prime minister-designate, January 24, Fakhfakh said he would exclude Qalb Tounes and the Free Destourian Party, led by anti-Islamist lawyer Abir Moussi, from his planned government.

“I do not consider them on the path of the revolution and meeting the people’s expectations regarding the way ahead,” Fakhfakh said. “All parties voted for Kais Saied, because he embodies values and principles of the people, except those two parties.”

The prime minister-designate clearly put himself and his proposed government under the shadow of Saied as he announced he will only seek the support of parties that voted for Saied in presidential elections last October.  More than 70% of the voters cast ballots for Saied over Karoui.

Fakhfakh is opting for a different approach than previous Prime Minister-designate Habib Jemli, who, as an appointee of Ennahda, distanced himself from the proposal of the “president’s government.” Ennahda fears a shift of power to Saied and the weakening of the legislative branch in a manner that weakens its political influence in the decision-making process.

Fakhfakh met with leaders of the main four parties of the “revolutionary” path after excluding Qalb Tounes and the anti-Islamist Free Destourian Party, although those parties are, respectively, the second- and third-largest blocs in parliament.

 The excluded parties protested Fakhfakh’s approach. By intending to form a government based on presidential legitimacy, Fakhfakh “ignores the fact that the political system in the country is a modified parliamentary system where the government derives its legitimacy from parliamentary legitimacy,” Qalb Tounes said in a statement.

The new cabinet is likely to secure at least 130 votes for approval in the 217-member parliament. However, that would leave Fakhfakh struggling to reconcile his desire for a small, strong team of “the highest competences and skills” to tackle economic and social crises and demands of party leaders and politicians eyeing jobs and influence in the government.

Fakhfakh said he values the political stability of his future government but not at the cost of competence and unity.

“I do not need to win vote confidence only to fail and fall one year later,” he said. “We strive to form a cohesive and loyal cabinet coalition that understands well the challenges of the current climate to move into an era of stability. Enough of playing political tactics.”

Fakhfakh, a 48-year-old engineer and former corporate manager, has taken liberal stances during election campaigns, although those positions did not win many votes. He defended equality between sexes in inheritance and gay rights. He opposed the jailing of cannabis smokers and the implementation of the death penalty “except in extreme cases.”

It is uncertain to what extent he would follow such an agenda if confirmed as prime minister.

He was a senior official in the social democratic Ettakatol party, which was part of a coalition government with Ennahda from 2012-13 when he served as tourism and finance minister.

Fakhfakh’s views could make him a natural ally of secularist groups and rights activists worried that Islamists in parliament could jeopardise Tunisia’s gains in terms of civic freedoms. However, he is likely to balance such views with a need to maintain good ties with Ennahda, which holds more seats in parliament than any other party.

Fakhfakh needs to consider the influence of Ennahda’s “neo-revolutionary” wing, which seeks to shift the balance of government formation in favour of partisans of radical change, such as the centre-left Attayyar ad-dimokrati and pan-Arabist Ach Chaab.

Jemli, a former junior agriculture minister, failed to win parliament’s endorsement as prime minister three weeks ago after he was tapped by Ennahda. His rejection gave Saied the opportunity to choose a candidate.

Ennahda is said to have been largely ambivalent about Fakhfakh’s nomination. Some members, viewing him as a trusted former ally, welcomed his nomination while others were less sanguine.

“We believe that Fakhfakh is from the new generation that is imbued with the values of the revolution, democracy, social justice and good governance. That is what interests us,” said Abdellatif Mekki, a leader of a more radical faction in Ennahda that is critical of Ghannouchi.

Ennahda spokesman Imed Khemiri voiced qualified support for Fakhfakh, saying: “Ennahda will decide whether to back him or not in the light of the line-up of his proposed government and its announced programme.”

Fakhfakh was proposed by Tahya Tounes, which is led by caretaker Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and backed by Attayyar ad-dimokrati.

Analysts said Fakhfakh’s bid to form a government would fail if Ennahda, its Islamist allies in parliament and Qalb Tounes voted against him because they collectively control 109 votes in the 217-seat parliament. That is, however, an unlikely scenario.

A no-confidence vote would trigger snap elections, a scenario many parties would like to avoid.

A new poll indicated that the Free Destourian Party had taken the lead in a potential election with 16.6% support, ahead of Ennahda (15.9%) and Qalb Tounes (15.6%). In a presidential contest, Saied would come first with 63.9% support and Karoui a second with 11.1%.

Analysts said Fakhfakh would face a worsening economic crisis, a disillusioned populace and a fractured political scene on top of regional and domestic security challenges. Fakhfakh said he would prioritise social policies protecting the poor and the disadvantaged regions.

He said he plans to put together a tight-knit team that “combines competence, expertise and strong political will and loyalty to the national constants and the goals of our glorious revolution.”

Fakhfakh’s critics pointed out his shortcomings as finance minister in 2013, when the government’s big-spending and public-service hiring policies compounded Tunisia’s debt problem and failed to create needed growth.

His party, Ettakatol, lost during the 2014 presidential elections and failed to win a single seat in parliament. It had similar results in 2019. Fakhfakh resigned from the party January 22 before beginning talks with party leaders to form a new cabinet.