There is no new government and Tunisia’s political scene remains paralyzed as the parties in parliament appear unable to agree on how to move forward.
The elections in November 2019 brought about a wave of optimism following President Saied’s landslide victory. However, almost four months later, there is no new government and Tunisia’s political scene remains paralyzed as the parties in parliament appear unable to agree on how to move forward.
The crux of the issue lies in a prevailing sense among all the parties that whoever rules Tunisia in this period is destined to fail and will pay a heavy price in the next elections. The political parties are aware of the popular angst and anger directed at the failure of the political system to bring about solutions to the problems that gave rise to the Arab Spring revolution in December 2010; namely unemployment, poverty, and an imbalanced economy that favors the coastal cities over the inner regions.
The parties are aware that a working majority in the current make-up of the parliament is impossible to achieve.
The parties are also aware that a working majority in the current make-up of the parliament is impossible to achieve. Even if a government secures the 109 votes necessary to pass, it will in de facto terms remain hamstrung by deep divisions as parties wrestle to be seen by the people as having nothing to do with the unfolding economic crisis that shows no sign of abating.
Mohamed Abou of Tayyar al-Dimoqrati party announced soon after the elections that his party would not participate in any government unless they were offered the interior ministry. In other words, he imposed an impossible condition knowing it will be refused so that his party would not subsequently be accused of fleeing from their responsibility and would find legitimacy as an opposition party with nothing to do with the anticipated failures of the future government.
Abir Moussi of the Free Destorian Party (LDP) continues to state that she will not participate in any government that has anything to do with Nahda, which remains the largest party and the lightning rod of popular discontent.
This is why Nahda initially put forward Habib al-Jimli as their candidate; though, he subsequently failed to form a government. Touted as an independent, Nahda sought to be seen as forgoing its right to form a government and put forward what they hoped would be seen as a non-partisan figure. However, the prevailing view in the public and in the media was that Nahda’s leader Rached al-Ghannouchi was playing with semantics and that al-Jimli was for all intents and purposes a ‘Nahdawi’. This placed Nahda in an awkward position.
To secure the required 109 votes, Nahda required a potential alliance with either Qalb Tunis, whom large sections of society accuse of being the representatives of the corrupt elite, or the current caretaker Prime Minister Youcef al-Chahed, who is blamed for many of the current problems that plague Tunisia. If Nahda is seen to ally with any of them, then it compounds Ghannouchi’s internal problems as opposition mounts over his policy of pragmatism and perceived unscrupulous compromise. And that is what his critics believe to be one of the main reasons why Nahda has gone from more than 89 seats in 2011, to 69 seats in 2014, to only 53 in 2019.
Constitutional versus popular legitimacy
There is also the issue of constitutional versus popular legitimacy. Under the constitution, parliament is sovereign. However, the elections made clear that Tunisians still view the Presidency as the most important office.
There is also the issue of constitutional versus popular legitimacy. Under the constitution, parliament is sovereign. However, the elections made clear that Tunisians still view the Presidency as the most important office as turnout for the Presidential elections exceeded that of the Parliamentary elections.
This was clearly reflected in the immediate aftermath of the elections as Kais Saied’s supporters touted the prospect of the ‘President’s government’, an idea that seeks to use the popular legitimacy of the elections where Kais Saied secured a landslide victory to override the right of the Parliament to form a government.
Following the failure of al-Jimli’s attempts to form a government, the President nominated Ilyas al-Fakh Fakh. Yet, although he is the President’s choice, and Fakh Fakh has stated that he wields the support of over two and a half million who gave the President his landslide electoral victory, the popular perception is that his would not be the President’s government. Even though, should Fakh Fakh fail to form a government in the allotted time, the President will not be able to suggest another candidate.
This is significant as it implies that Kais Saied may not have to pay a political price for what may turn out to be a poor choice of candidate. The reason is that the current narrative among Tunisians is that if Fakh Fakh fails, then it will be primarily because Nahda refused to respect the President’s choice and plotted its downfall, and because the other parties fear Saied’s perceived popular support.
From Nahda’s perspective, their antagonism to Kais Saied is rooted in a prevailing opinion among the political parties that Saied’s popular support can only be deduced from the first round of the elections where he secured 19% of the vote, and not the second round where he secured over 70%.
In their opinion, and that of the other parties, the primary reason for the landslide in the second round was because many Tunisians felt they were placed between a perceived ‘corrupt’ deep-state candidate in Nabil al-Karoui, and a ‘clean’ outsider.
The parties believe Saied does not enjoy as much popular support as is perceived and that his electoral victory is down to Tunisians having to choose between ‘corruption’ or ‘a clean candidate’.
In other words, Nahda and the other parties believe Saied does not enjoy as much popular support as is perceived and that his electoral victory is down to Tunisians having to choose between ‘corruption’ or ‘a clean candidate’. Nahda and some of the other political parties such as the Karama Alliance, Tayyar al-Dimoqrati, Harakt al-Sha’b will argue that their combined vote, which exceeded one million forms much of the votes that helped Saied win the second round of the elections.
Therefore, the belief is that if Saied pushes back against the Parliament, then his real strength will be exposed, and the president will find that the combined supporters of the political parties outnumber the supporters of Kais Saied.
No one wants early elections
Ironically, none of the major parties in Parliament want another election either. The inability to predict the results, and current opinion polls that show a decline in support for the larger parties and a rise in support for Abir Moussi suggest that Tunisians are becoming increasingly tired and frustrated by the democratic process that has yielded very little in terms of real socio-economic change.
The parties are concerned that they will be brutally punished at the polls were the people to accuse them of prioritizing personal interests over the nation’s. Moreover, the parties expended considerable resources in what was a fiercely contested battle in a deeply divided political climate. There is no appetite among the parties to go through the grueling campaign process once more.
Lastly, if the President suddenly decides to form a party (which is highly unlikely as concerns grow over his health), then it is possible that such a party would displace some of the current powers in the Parliament today. In other words, all indicators suggest that no party currently in the parliament will gain, and instead they will all most likely lose seats.
This means that if Fakh Fakh’s government looks on the brink of collapse, the parties may rush to an agreement over a government that they know will later fall. However, such a government will at least buy time for the parties and avoid the prospect of an early election.
So, what happens if Fakh Fakh cannot form a government?
Under clause 89 of Tunisia’s constitution, the President will have the right to dissolve parliament and trigger new elections. However, it is unclear whether President Saied will do that. If he does not dissolve parliament, then Tunisia enters a constitutional crisis whereby the current caretaker Prime Minister Yousef al-Chahed will continue to govern while the country debates how to handle an unprecedented situation.