Tunisia’s Transition Hits a Rough Patch Following COVID Lockdown
Volatile post-election politics continues to limit the government’s ability to address Tunisians grievances.
Since uprisings swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, Tunisia has long been regarded as the lone democratic success story. But nearly 10 years later, volatile party politics and authoritarian legacies continue to plague the transition. The October 2019 election cycle, marked by low voter turnout, demonstrated Tunisians deep disenchantment with the political class for its failure to address the grievances that sparked the ouster of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. After the elections, a government was not formed until February 2020. But months later, Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh resigned over allegations of conflicts of interest. In recent weeks, the political landscape has shifted rapidly. USIP’s Leo Siebert examines the political wrangling and Tunisia’s post-election political struggles.
What happened after last year’s fall elections?
The October 2019 parliamentary elections swept in a broad range of new and lesser-known political parties—none of which received more than 18 percent of the vote. Tunisians demonstrated they were by and large fed up with the extant political class.
A parliament comprised of 20 parties with disparate ideologies and a smattering of independents made forming a cohesive governing coalition particularly challenging. The only party from the previous government to maintain a significant vote share was the Islamist Ennahda party, securing a plurality with 52 seats but far shy of the 109 needed for a majority. After Ennahda failed to win confidence in its proposed government in January, President Kais Said appointed Elyes Fakhfakh, a former minister of finance, to form a government as prime minister.
If Fakhfakh’s proposed government had failed to receive confidence of the parliament, the legislature would have been dissolved and snap elections held. To avoid this scenario, all parties that Fakhfakh invited to participate in the government, including Ennahda, reluctantly agreed to do so. It would only be a matter of time before this coalition of necessity began to break down. A number of underlying issues made it unsustainable:
- Vast ideological differences between the coalition members, including sworn enemies of Ennahda such as the leftist People’s Movement.
- Ennahda, the largest coalition member, was not happy with the government’s composition. They wanted to hold more influential positions and wanted Qalb Tounes to be a part of the coalition. (Qalb Tounes won the second most seats and is led by controversial businessman Nabil Karoui, who came in second in the 2019 presidential election.)
- Newly powerful parties besides Qalb Tounes—namely the Dignity Coalition and the Free Destourian Party—were excluded from the coalition. This sowed resentment that would begin to surface after the COVID-19 lockdown and play in favor of the eventual move to push Prime Minister Fakhfakh out of power.
- Fakhfakh’s government did not represent the coalition members proportionate to their vote share in parliament.
- Ministers appointed to address important issues like anti-corruption, good governance, and human rights were seen as committed reformers but also as personal allies of Fakhfakh and Said, which some parties perceived as a potential threat.
How did the coronavirus pandemic impact Tunisia as political wrangling over the government formation went on?
In mid-March, mere days after the Fakhfakh government was seated, the rate of COVID-19 transmission began to grow exponentially. To prevent catastrophe, the new government acted swiftly by instituting a nationwide stay-at-home order that lasted through May. This devastated the economy but effectively prevented further spread of the pandemic.
As the confinement lifted in early June, parliamentary politics quickly became volatile with a host of parties—including some within the government coalition—launching an assault on Ennahda President and Speaker of Parliament Rachid Ghannouchi over his phone calls with Turkish President Recep Erdogan and Fayaz al-Sarraj, the prime minister of Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord. This raised the ire of many who saw this as Ennahda mixing the international interests of their party and the Muslim Brotherhood movement with the affairs of state and international relations that are reserved for the president and others in the executive. Opponents accused Speaker Ghannouchi not only of overstepping his role but also of damaging Tunisia’s position as a neutral player in the Libya conflict.
Meanwhile, the Free Destourian Party—a significant opposition party molded in the image of the old regime party led by Ben Ali—called on the government to investigate Ennahda for terrorism, designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, and consider any Tunisian affiliated with it a terrorist criminal as per the counterterrorism law.
As Ennahda felt more pressure from inside and outside of its government coalition, it began to look elsewhere to strengthen its position. Rumors circulated of a possible new government coalition led by Ennahda, the Dignity Coalition (a new far-right religious conservative party), and Qalb Tounes. Days later, headlines broke that Fakhfakh may have been involved in a conflict of interest concerning his shares in businesses that hold contracts with the state.
Why did Fakhfakh resign?
By June, Fakhfakh was under heavy pressure to resign over alleged conflicts of interest that led to a row with Ennahda. He was being investigated for alleged failure to hand over control of shares he owns in private companies that have won public contracts.
On July 15, under mounting pressure from Ennahda, Heart of Tunisia, Dignity Coalition, Ennahda-aligned independents, and, eventually, President Said, the prime minister resigned. This prevented a vote of no confidence which, if passed, would have given Ennahda and its allies the constitutional authority to form a new government. On July 25, President Said appointed a new prime minister designate, the current caretaker Minister of Interior Hichem Mechichi, a longtime government functionary and adviser to Said. He has 30 days to form a government.
What about the opposition to Ghannouchi?
Meanwhile, in early July, the Democratic Current and People’s Movement (the prime minister’s allies in parliament), with support from other anti-Ennahda blocs such as Tahya Tounes, submitted a petition for a vote of no confidence in Ghannouchi as speaker citing his inability to transparently manage the affairs of parliament. Separately the Free Destourian Party submitted their own vote of no confidence motion on Ghannouchi.
On July 30, the parliament held a vote on the motion. The motion failed to hit the 109-vote threshold needed to pass. But it was a close call for Ghannouchi, with 97 votes for withdrawal of confidence. In the lead up to the parliamentary vote, Ennahda took every measure possible to secure the support of swayable representatives. Accusations of influence by Gulf states, both for and against, Ghannouchi abounded.
Surviving the test of confidence restores some legitimacy to Ghannouchi and his party during a period of political upheaval. The effects of the vote will have limited impact on the street where Ennahda continues to suffer for the failures of previous governments of which it was a major player. As such, Ennahda will continue to advocate for a government of national unity, a tactic used by Ghannouchi and late President of Tunisia Beji Caid Essebsi to limit opposition to the government by encouraging the majority of parliamentary blocs to participate in the government and benefit from it. This has the added political benefit of sharing the blame for status quo politics.
Why did Said choose Mechichi to form the next government and why?
The president’s choice of Mechichi suggests that he is hoping a nonpartisan premier can prevent the political deadlock and internal strife that characterized the recently resigned government. It can also be seen as an attempt to ensure the prime minister remains allied to the president instead of Ennahda or others in parliament. Some analysts suggest that the Said’s turf war with Ennahda and his adversarial position toward Ghannouchi is motivated by his desire to delegitimize the current parliament and the major political parties in preparation for his direct democracy vision that favors grassroot governance structures. This remains to be seen.
While a purely technocratic government will likely not be acceptable to the major parties in parliament or the business interests that support them, a nonpartisan prime minister leading a coalition government with Ennahda and Qalb Tounes holding key ministries is conceivable. As such, Mechichi’s success may depend on his and President Said’s willingness to accept Ennahda’s and Qalb Tounes’ choices for key ministries, which may include putting picks from the far-right Dignity Coalition in places of power.
If Mechichi and the parliament fail to reach a deal, it remains unclear what would happen next. The 2014 constitution is unclear in this regard, and without a constitutional court, Said will determine whether to dissolve parliament or give it yet another chance to form a government under a prime minister of their choosing. If parliament were to be dissolved, the Free Destourian Party may be best positioned to gain in a snap election. This is something Ennahda will likely take every measure possible to avoid.