Tunisia’s prime minister stresses need for 'political stability', pleads for patience

The government projected 5% economic growth by the end of 2019 compared to a 3% forecast for this year.
Wednesday 28/02/2018
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed with two women from Tunisian island of Djerba
Transient turbulence. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed greets people during a visit in the southern Tunisian resort island of Djerba, last March. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed emphatically defended his government’s 18-month record in an interview but critics are demanding a cabinet reshuffle to tackle the country’s economic and social woes.

"The thing that most harmed Tunisia’s interests after the revolution in 2011 was the lack of political stability. The country had seven or eight governments in seven years," said Chahed, at 42 the youngest Tunisian politician to have led the government.

"You cannot design and successfully implement economic policies… in a period of 18 months," he told Tunisian state television in an interview broadcast February 25.

Chahed urged Tunisians, exhausted by economic hardships and political infighting, to give him time to turn the country’s economic and financial situation around and noted that there were signs of strong growth in 2019.

He challenged his government's opponents to propose programmes that could more quickly and effectively cut the budget deficit, cure massive unemployment, tame high inflation, fill dwindling foreign currency reserves, slash soaring foreign debt and energise weak economic growth.

"What alternative programmes do those people calling for a [cabinet] reshuffle or change of the government have to offer?" Chahed asked.

Many of the government's opponents, including the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), have not questioned Chahed’s political leadership even while assailing the government’s performance.

Such criticism centred on the government's presumed slow pace in dealing with economic and social issues, including the European Union's blacklisting of Tunisia as a country at risk of tax evasion and money laundering, as well as protests over jobs that halted the production of phosphate, one of the country’s key foreign currency earners, in southern Tunisia for almost two months.

During the interview, Chahed repeatedly stressed the importance of political stability in addressing Tunisia's economic and social problems.

Tunisia’s economic woes were highlighted by a 6.9% year-on-year increase in inflation, and a decline in foreign currency reserves, from around $5.4 billion to $4.8 billion -- the lowest level in 16 years -- over the past 12 months.

"By the end of 2019 the economic indicators will turn green," said Chahed, referencing the year in which presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled.

The government projected 5% economic growth by the end of 2019 compared to a 3% forecast for this year. Growth was 1.9% in 2017, 1% in 2016 and 0.8% in 2015, official figures indicate.

"You cannot jump from 1% or so in GNP growth to 5%… in 12 months. That is just not possible," Chahed said.

The prime minister offered further examples of improvement, including a reduction in unemployment among young university graduates (29.9% last year compared to 31.6% in 2016).

Tunisia’s textile sector is seeing a turnaround, with exports rising 30% in January. "This sector is back to growth and the manufacturing sector is returning to growth, " Chahed said. "These are labour-intensive sectors. The quality of growth is changing and that is good."

The government-run Tunisian Textile Technical Centre said Tunisia was once the fifth largest exporter of textiles to the European Union, with average exports of $3.6 billion a year from 2004-10 despite fierce competition from China and other supplying countries before the sector plunged into crisis because of protests, chronic work stoppages and smuggling.

Chahed did not rule out the possibility of appointing new ministers in the future but stressed that he would be the one to decide on changes, not political opponents or trade union leaders.

When asked if his government could hold onto power until 2019, Chahed was circumspect: "We are a government and there is the parliament, the presidency of the republic, the political parties and national organisations. All have a say and the right to express their views."

Chahed’s cabinet is a government of national unity backed by Tunisia’s leading political parties and main trade and employers’ groups.

"The key to success in Tunisia is political stability. Tunisia has everything to succeed but the rare commodity is the political stability," Chahed said.

Chahed, whose "war" on corruption has been one of the government’s main priorities, said. "If there were no war against corruption, half of the government’s problems would not exist because most of the criticisms against the government come from people whose interests were affected by that war."