The Tunisian government headed by Prime Minister Ilyas al-Fakh Fakh was never going to last. It was clear in the events that led up to its formation. The prospect of facing an increasingly hostile electorate in early elections forced the parties to abandon their polarized positions and agree to a coalition government, until more favorable circumstances allowed for a new round of jostling. In other words, the fall of Fakh Fakh’s government was a matter of when, not if.
The dynamics governing the negotiations over the formation of a new government under President Saied’s nominee, Hisham Al-Mishishi, are much the same in many respects. The parties remain uneasy over the prospect of early elections as current polls suggest there is widespread anger at all parties, and a surge in support for the president and the party of the former regime led by Abir Moussi. Neither Ennahda, nor Qalb Tunis, nor Tayyar al-Dimoqrati, nor the Karama alliance or any of the other parties believe they stand a viable chance of improving their current position in the Parliament.
However, where the power balance under Fakh Fakh’s government appeared more in favor of Parliament by virtue of it being a coalition government, the power balance this time has shifted significantly in favor of the president. Fakh Fakh’s government was formed out of compromise, yet Al-Mishishi’s government is likely to be formed by the sheer will of a president who has successfully channeled popular support into coercing the constitutionally more powerful Parliament, and cornered the political parties into either submitting to his will or losing their seats.
When news emerged of possible corruption by Fakh Fakh, Ennahda moved quickly to reassert itself over the government.
When news emerged of possible corruption by Fakh Fakh, Ennahda moved quickly to reassert itself over the government. Reports suggested that Fakh Fakh was offered a choice: surrender the government in de facto terms by incorporating Ennahda allies – namely Qalb Tunis (Fakh Fakh would be allowed to remain as prime minister), or face the full investigative process and become mired in a corruption scandal.
As the parliamentary investigative committee appeared closer to concluding that there was enough evidence for the matter to be referred to the attorney general, Ennahda announced that they would commence discussions over the formation of a new government and would seek a vote of no confidence in Fakh Fakh’s government.
The president was initially defiant, outright rejecting the notion of new discussions over the government. It is no secret in Tunisia that the president is deeply unhappy with Ennahda’s leader Ghannouchi, implicitly accusing him of undermining the presidency and seeking to run state affairs on his own.
Moreover, other parties in Parliament such as Tayyar al-Dimoqrati (who preside over three important ministries including education), denounced what they perceived as an attempt by Ennahda to take control of the government. The leader of the trade unions, Noureddine Tabboubi, came out in support of the president and his prime minister, calling for calm or early elections.
Ennahda proceeded to build a coalition of parties to secure the required 109 votes to topple Fakh Fakh’s government. However, on the afternoon that the motion of no confidence was handed in, the president announced that the prime minister had already handed in his resignation that morning.
The president’s announcement regarding Fakh Fakh’s resignation created a constitutional crisis.
The president’s announcement regarding Fakh Fakh’s resignation created a constitutional crisis that would result in a shifting of power away from Parliament to the presidency. Under the constitution, Parliament has priority in forming a government if the previous one is toppled by a vote of no confidence. However, if the prime minister resigns, then the onus is on the president to choose. In other words, the timing of the resignation would dictate who would be in the driving seat in establishing the next government.
The question that was asked by the political parties and analysts was: If Fakh Fakh had resigned that morning, why was such an important news item not announced? Why did the president withhold the information until the motion of no confidence was handed in?
The suggestion is that Fakh Fakh had not actually resigned that morning, and that the president had announced his resignation without consulting him so as to retain the authority over designating the new prime minister.
Herein, Ennahda found itself in a quandary. Although the beleaguered Fakh Fakh had been the president’s choice, the latter’s popularity appeared unaffected. If anything, President Kais Saied’s popularity (according to the polls) appears to have improved.
Ennahda, however, have seen their popularity fall by comparison. In other words, Ennahda would not be able to summon the popular support for an attack on the president whereby they would accuse him of lying and demand proof of his claim that Fakh Fakh had resigned. Instead, they would more likely be accused by the Tunisian public of launching a power grab for their own interests and suffer accordingly.
This was precisely how other political parties in Parliament such as Tayyar al-Dimoqrati perceived it. Tayyar’s leader, Mohamed Abou, appeared willing to jeopardize his own reputation for being firm on corruption by entertaining the prospect of Fakh Fakh continuing in power, to prevent Ennahda from becoming the dominant force.
Ennahda decided not to challenge Saied and instead sought to build a coalition of parties to rally behind a candidate that they would recommend to the president. If he refused, then he could theoretically be accused of going against the people’s will that is reflected through Parliament.
Ennahda reportedly succeeded in securing a bloc of 125 MPs that was prepared to support their candidate, Fadil Abdelkafi. Meanwhile, the president demonstrated his disdain for the political parties by insisting that suggestions be sent via letter, instead of engaging in face-to-face meetings with party leaders as is custom, implying he already had a candidate in mind.
Saied ignored all candidates recommended by Parliament and opted for his own man, Hisham al-Mishishi.
The political parties underestimated Kais Saied’s growing confidence. Saied ignored all candidates recommended by Parliament and opted for his own man, Hisham al-Mishishi. The message was clear for all: either Parliament follows the will of the president or face the people in early elections and be condemned. The polls suggest President Saied’s popularity is soaring as he pushes back against what is seen by many Tunisians as an impotent Parliament that has brought little benefit since 2011.
Moreover, the polls show that all political parties will lose seats in the early election except that of the former regime which is apparently becoming more popular as it publicly antagonizes Ennahda and accuses them of usurping the state. More worrying for the political parties is that these polls do not take into consideration the prospect of the president fielding his own candidates in any elections, which may well eclipse the current front runners.
The political parties now find themselves cornered. None are keen on early elections as popular opinion blames them for the current political deadlock and accuses them of seeking to protect their own interests at the expense of the state. The president appears unscathed by diplomatic blunders such as his manner of addressing President Macron and stating that Tunisia had been a protectorate and not a colony of France, and a worsening economic crisis.
As in 2014, the anti-Ennahda sentiment has emerged once more as a driving dynamic in popular opinion – with many praising the president for being the first to “push back” against the party, and the media continuing to peddle a polarizing narrative whereby only two choices are presented for the Tunisian people: pro- or anti-Ennahda.
In all of this, however, there are darker questions to be asked over the nascent democratic process in the country. Is the solution to a divided and inefficient Parliament that power should be put back into the hands of a single person or institution, as was the case under the dictatorships of Ben Ali and Bourguiba?
For all Ennahda’s faults, it has been undeniably the most successful political party electorally in the past decade. Their enduring success is perhaps more an indictment of the anti-Ennahda Tunisian elements of the electorate that have failed to rally behind a potent alternative and deliver it to power.
The current parliamentary deadlock is more a reflection of the deep divisions within Tunisian society than the result of any political machinations on the part of the parties themselves.
Accordingly, the current parliamentary deadlock is more a reflection of the deep divisions within Tunisian society than the result of any political machinations on the part of the parties themselves. Is it democratic that Tunisians should be told that there are only two legitimate political positions?
Furthermore, is it right that the failure of Ennahda in power over the last decade warrants a revision of the entire democratic system, and a touting of a return to the notorious presidential order? These are important questions.
It is likely that Tunisia’s political parties will allow Saied to have his way and hope that his government fails in a manner that dents his popularity. However, this is a risky option as the Tunisian population is more likely to attribute every success to Saied, and every failure on his part to the Parliament by accusing it of obstructing his measures. Yet, even if Tunisia goes to early elections, there is no guarantee that the new Parliament will be any different from the current one in so far as there is an absence of a workable majority.
The inescapable reality is that the Parliament, for all its flaws, precisely reflects the state of the Tunisian electorate: deeply divided, angry, polarized, and looking for a villain to blame for the socio-economic deterioration of the country in which all have played a part—politicians and the electorate that continues to vote them back into power.