Tunisia’s prime minister looks ahead after parliament vote over cabinet reshuffle

The strong show of support could signal that Chahed is being acknowledged as the leader of the secularist camp ahead of elections next year.
Sunday 18/11/2018
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed speaks during a plenary session at the Tunisian parliament in Tunis, on November 12. (AFP)
Forging ahead. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed speaks during a plenary session at the Tunisian parliament in Tunis, on November 12. (AFP)

TUNIS - The Tunisian parliament approved a cabinet reshuffle proposed by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed with a vote that demonstrated a larger-than-expected backing in the legislature for the prime minister.

The strong show of support could signal that Chahed is being acknowledged as the leader of the secularist camp ahead of elections next year.

That heralds a shift in the ties between the cabinet and the presidency, driving the secularist camp into uncharted waters.

 “I’m chief of government, not a prime minister,” said Chahed after the vote on November 12  asserting his newly gained power.

Analysts said more executive and political power for Chahed lessens the influence of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi.

“Chahed becomes the unchallenged leader. His position did not come from Tunisian voters but is the result of changes within the party that won the 2014’s elections,” said political analyst Zied Krichene, in reference to Nidaa Tounes, founded by Caid Essebsi in 2012 as counterweight to the Islamist Ennahda Movement. Nidaa Tounes won presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014.

The party, which selected Chahed two years ago to improve its chances for the 2019 elections, ruptured after Caid Essebsi ascended to the presidency, leaving his son Hafedh Caid Essebsi as the party’s leader. A bitter showdown with Chahed over his leadership of the cabinet weakened Nidaa Tounes, however.

Chahed’s supporters said he will introduce his own party by the end of the year.

All those political moves reduced Beji Caid Essebsi’s room to manoeuvre, although he could regain the advantage should he run for re-election next year, analysts said.

Chahed named ten new ministers and eight secretaries of state on November 5 in a cabinet reshuffle that was meant to stamp his leadership position despite differences with Beji Caid Essebsi and rivals in Nidaa Tounes, the leading secularist party.

Some ministerial nominees received as many as 132 votes November 12 in the 217-member parliament, higher than the simple majority of 109 votes needed, a reflection of support Chahed has in parliament from secularists and the Islamist Ennahda Movement.

Chahed appointed ministers from three political groups, including Ennahda, which together have 121 members in the parliament.

Chahed kept key defence, foreign affairs, interior and finance portfolios unchanged. He could not constitutionally appoint new ministers to defence and foreign affairs without consulting the president.

Analysts said the political manoeuvre was an attempt for Chahed to lock up support for his political future as well as winning parliamentary backing for the new cabinet.

Among the new ministers is Mohamed Fadhel Mahfoudh, the former head of Tunisia’s bar association who was among four Tunisians whose civil society groups were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015, as minister in charge of human rights.

Chahed appointed Paris-based businessman Rene Trabelsi tourism minister, making him the first member of the country’s Jewish community to gain a ministerial job since Tunisia’s independence in 1956.

Trablesi won 127 votes in favour of appointment despite accusations from leftist activists of support for political normalisation with Israel. That vote of approval was considered a show of tolerance and peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Jews in Tunisia despite raging violence in the Middle East.

To lure backing of supporters of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in the Sahel, Chahed placed Kamel Morjane as minister in charge of the public service and administrative modernisation. He served as defence (2005-10) and foreign minister (2010-11) under Ben Ali. Morjane, who leads the centrist El Moubadara party, has hinted he might run for president next year.

Chahed kept Education Minister Hatem Ben Salem and Finance Minister Ridha Chalghoum, who were ministers under Ben Ali, in their positions.

The prime minister pledged to uphold good relations with Caid Essebsi, who voiced bitterness over Chahed’s dealing with the president regarding protocol in reshuffling the government.

“Thanks to Chahed, we are experiencing a new political momentum,” said Chahed loyalist Leila Chettaoui, a parliament member. “We have been busy during a year building a political project for Chahed. We are preparing to launch a new party, which will be announced to the public in the next three or four weeks.”

“Ennahda remains the political rival of the supporters of this party,” she said, a signal that Chahed might develop a party to counter Islamists, much as Caid Essebsi did in forming Nidaa Tounes.

However, other lawmakers said Chahed’s victory was a “coup” against his mentor, Caid Essebsi.

“You staged a coup against Beji Caid Essebsi. Beji appointed you as prime minister when you had nothing in terms of political power. You betrayed him,” said MP Samia Abbou from the opposition Democratic Current.

She echoed resentment among Nidaa Tounes loyalists who said Chahed’s de facto alliance with Ennahda as a “betrayal” and an unjustified reversal of their party’s victory in the 2014 legislative elections.

The parliamentary victory gives Chahed a mandate to introduce the economic reforms he has pledged but analysts said they expect a fierce election battle that could delay any action on urgent economic issues.

“The race for the elections amounts to nothing less than a war to win a share of the pie, which, in fact, does not exist because of the continuing economic and social crisis. The political parties are locked prematurely in the fight for elections forgetting that at the end of the race they will find a country on the brink of bankruptcy and people who refuse to be trapped in a corrupted political game,” said political analyst Nejib Ouerghi.