Tunisia’s prime minister-designate gives few clues about next cabinet

Trade unions call on Mechichi to form a limited government based on competencies.
Tuesday 04/08/2020
A file picture Tunisian Prime Minister-Designate Hichem Mechichi. (AFP)
A file picture Tunisian Prime Minister-Designate Hichem Mechichi. (AFP)

TUNIS--Faced with a lingering social and economic crisis and deepening political morass, the task of Tunisia’s future head of government will not be easy.

Tunisia is on the brink of a financial crisis and many are wondering whether designated Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi will be able to achieve his immediate task of cabinet formation despite the chaotic political scene.

Against all expectations, Tunisian President Kais Saied named the country’s 46-year old interior minister on July 25 to be the next prime minister, giving him 30 days to form a cabinet.

Tunisian president Kais Saied (R) appoints Interior mMinister Hichem Mechichi as the country’s new prime minister, tasked with forming a new unity cabinet, at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, July 25. (Tunisian Presidency)
Tunisian president Kais Saied (R) appoints Interior mMinister Hichem Mechichi as the country’s new prime minister, tasked with forming a new unity cabinet, at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, July 25. (Tunisian Presidency)

If the government does not win the MPs’ vote of confidence, the president will have to call for early elections.

Tunisia’s political crisis reached its peak at the end of July when deputies held a no-confidence vote in an attempt to remove Ennahda party leader Rached Ghannouchi from his position as parliament speaker. The draft motion to withdraw confidence was eventually rejected, collecting 97 votes in favour and 16 against.

On July 26, Mechichi began consultations to form the new government team, a first step before subjecting the cabinet to a parliamentary vote of confidence, which needs an absolute majority to succeed.

If the cabinet fails to secure a majority, parliament will be dissolved and new elections will be organised within three months.

According to experts, Ennahda will do its best to avoid such a scenario, as new elections could weaken its influence and potentially leave the party with less seats than its nemesis, the Free Destourian Party (PDL) of Abir Moussi.

Repeat elections could also cause Ennahda’s allies — Qalb Tounes and The Dignity coalition –to emerge weaker, further jeopardising the Islamist party’s influence.

Mechichi, who has yet to reveal his intentions and choices to the general public, has sent some significant signals in recent days by choosing to receive Central Bank Governor  Marouane Abassi and former Central Bank Governor Taoufik Baccar. This shows that he is prioritising Tunisia’s economic concerns.

Mechichi also received the president of the National Union of Tunisian Women Radhia Jerbi, as well as leaders of key social organisations in the country, namely secretary-general of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) Noureddine Taboubi, president of the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA) Samir Majoul and president of the Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fisheries (UTAP) Abdelmajid Ezzar.

Though it is still unclear exactly which type of government Mechichi is hoping to form, and whether it will be a government of national competencies, a rescue government, a political government or a qouta-based partisan one, initial indications point to the possible formation of a small government of national competencies best equipped to handle the country’s pressing issues.

Citing  “past failures,” trade union leader Noureddine Tabboubi has called for a limited government  filled with competencies.

Mechichi, who is currently testing the ground for possible political support, received Monday representatives of parliamentary blocs as part of consultations to form the new government, local media reported.

The four blocs, according to Tunisian state news agency TAP, included Ennahda (54 seats), the Democratic Bloc (38 seats), Qalb Tounes (27 seats) and the Dignity Coalition (19 seats).

Following the meeting with parliamentary blocs, secretary-general of the People’s Movement and deputy for the Democratic Bloc Zuhair al-Maghzawi told local media that he told the prime minister-designate that “it is in his interest and the interest of the country to not include Ennahda movement in the next government.”

Maghzawi said that “a government without Ennahda is important,” and that he advised Mechichi not to form a government of competencies that are not related to political parties, for fear of failing to secure the required support in parliament.

Earlier on Monday, PDL leader Abir Moussi released a statement saying that her party had received an invitation from Mechichi to participate in consultations to form the new government.

In the PDL’s statement, it reiterated that the party is not interested in any government position and will not participate in any consultation involving “representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood organisation,” in reference to Ennahda.

According to the statement, the PDL will also not approve of any governmental process in which “Ennahda movement is represented.”

Since mid-July, the PDL has repeatedly stated its preference for a government that includes civilian forces and keeps out Ennahda and its political allies, namely the Dignity Coalition and Qalb Tounes.

In the party’s most recent statement, it stressed that until the characteristics of the new team are clarified, “we cannot respond to [Mechichi’s] invitation at this stage.”

The PDL expressed hope that Mechichi will make the “right decision to fix the destructive processes seen so far.”

Tunisia’s political crisis has come at a difficult moment for the country, whose economy was wracked by the coronavirus pandemic just as the government was about to agree on reforms aimed at reducing public debt and boosting growth and job-creation.

The country’s gross domestic product is expected to fall 6% in 2020, according to the government. Debt is increasing rapidly while the tourism sector — a crucial source of jobs and foreign exchange — is almost at a standstill.

In terms of security, the conflict between foreign powers in Libya, which neighbours Tunisia, keeps the territory under permanent tension and is further straining Tunisians’ lives.

With these issues in mind, there remain concerns that political instability could expose Tunisia to further threats.