Is Fakhfakh the right man? Tunisia’s hour of reckoning
Giulia Cimini 25 February 2020

Almost five months after the elections took place, Tunisia may be finally close to have a new government installed. On February 15th, in fact, senior party member Abdelkarim Harouni had announced the decision by Ennahda, Tunisia’s Islamist-inspired party, to withdraw from talks on the formation of the cabinet and not to take part into a vote of confidence scheduled for February 26th after “the insistence of the appointed Prime Minister […] to reject the party’s request to form a national unity government that does not exclude anyone”. But, in an ever-changing scenario, ahead of the confidence vote Ennahda appeared to change its mind and announced it shall instead green-light a revised cabinet version with an increased number of portfolios in its favour.

The first proposed line-up of the new government also included ministers from the ranks of the Muslim-democratic party which came out on top in the last elections. Yet, Ennahda insisted on the inclusion of Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia), the party of controversial TV tycoon and defeated presidential candidate Nabil Karoui, which is the second biggest force in parliament with 38 seats. On his side, the appointed PM Elyes Fakhfakh has positioned himself as the “president’s man”, claiming to endorse a cabinet made up of “pro-revolution” members, thereby leaving out Qalb Tounes and the ultra-nationalist right-wing Free Destourian Party, led by anti-Islamist lawyer and Ben Ali’s fellow Abir Moussi.

Tunisia’s newly elected President Kais Saied tasked Elyes Fakhfakh with the job of forming a government after Ennahda’s nominee for Prime Minister, Habib Jemli failed to gain the confidence of the Parliament for his cabinet on January 10 with 71 votes in favour, 132 against and 3 abstentions after two months of intense negotiations. Aside from Ennahda, only the conservative Karama (Dignity) Coalition led by Islamist populist lawyer Seif Eddine Makhlouf – plus other three deputies on an individual basis – supported Jemli.

Should Fakhfakh’s proposal also be rejected by the deeply fragmented Parliament, however, the President may dissolve the Assembly and call for new elections within three months.

A fragile compromise

Since the revolution, Tunisia held three legislative elections: in 2011 (for the Constituent Assembly), in 2014 and in 2019. In these years, it has had five prime ministers and major government changes, as well as several minor reshuffles. However, no government had ever been rejected by a vote of no-confidence before Jemli’s. Habib Jemli, former Minister of Agriculture in the Troika governments, was eventually chosen by Ennahda, betting on his lack (at least formally) of political affiliation, experience in the administration in a cabinet made up of independent figures in a vain attempt to inspire more confidence in a parliament with never before seen level of political diversity.  Eventually, the narrative of non-partisanship only sparked controversy within Ennahda without convincing the parliament.

Fakhfakh, 47, is an engineer and manager trained in France. Following the 2011 revolution, he joined the social democratic Ettakatol party, which had allied with Ennahda in the Troika government. He served as the Minister of Tourism between December 2011 and March 2013, and was also named the Minister of Finance from December 2012 until January 2014. He also ran in the 2019 presidential election but only gained 0.34 % of votes in the first round.

Thanks to the last-minute backing of Ennahda (not so reliable with hindsight) the required majority of 109 votes seems less of a pipe dream, though the exclusion of many others like Qalb Tounes, Al Karama and the Free Destourian Party among others in such a divided parliament may still lead to plot twists.


Ennahda’s dilemmas

As the French journalist Thierry Brésillon recently pointed out in Orient XXI magazine, the consecration in the political arena of a party like Ennahda which was outlawed for thirty years and had to go underground while experiencing repression, imprisonments, and exile “it is a victory in itself. But a bitter victory”. Its leader Rached Ghannouchi is the Speaker of the Assembly, the second most important state official – and was elected thanks to the vote of Qalb Tounes which seized the vice-presidency of the Assembly.  Ennahda seems to have won the last elections, though with 54 seats it holds fewer than a quarter of the total. It has almost uninterruptedly taken part in all post-2011 governments and is the only major Tunisian party which has since 2011 escaped implosion, fusion or substantive remaking.

Yet, when faced with such degree of involvement in the government, trade-offs are significant on at least two levels. In terms of popular legitimacy and support, Ennahda has lost much ground within its electorate who had a hard time digesting the party’s shifting alliances and inability to cope with pressing socio-economic issues, as evidenced by its shrinking share of votes in the three post-revolution general elections: from more than 1,5 million voters (37%) for the Constituent Assembly in 2011, to approximately 947,000 (27.8%) in the 2014 legislatives to 561,000 votes (19.7%) in the last ones. Consequently, Ennahda has seen a drop in the number of its MPs from 89 seats in 2011 to 69 seats in 2014 to only 54 seats in 2019, giving them less room to manoeuvre and to exercise political influence.  Also, the party lost in internal coherence and cohesiveness with a reported increase in the gap between the more intransigent rank and file and the excessively prone-to-compromise Ghannouchi leadership.

Throughout the 2019 campaigns, Ennahda and Qalb Tounes vehemently opposed each other and ruled out any agreement. It would suffice to recall that Ennahda endorsed Kais Saied in the presidential elections’ runoff against Karoui. The deal cut in order to support Ghannouchi as Speaker of Parliament came as no real surprise. After all, Tunisia is not new to post-electoral alliances between forces which pledged to halt their respective rise. The previous alliance between Ennahda and deceased President Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes – an umbrella party born out to counterbalance and defeat the Islamists – is clear evidence of this.

Until just a few days ago, the Ennahda-Qalb Tounes-Karama axis appeared as the most likely to succeed in forming a cabinet, although Qalb Tounes rejected Jemli’s proposed government backed by Ennahda. Hence, its veto on Fakhfakh’s cabinet for the exclusion of Karoui’s party can be viewed as an attempt to contain partners regarded as more hostile in order to avoid being in a minority position within the coalition government: namely the social-democratic Attayar (Democratic Current) party of human rights activist Mohamed Abbou and the socialist People’s Movement. After all, if one puts aside Ennahda’s rhetoric to defend the revolution and fight corruption, in terms of economic policies it does share with Qalb Tounes a similar liberal approach, as opposed to their leftist counterparts. Yet, Ennahda will apparently take a step back (again).

Ennahda leadership’s protracted compromising attitude has been increasingly eroding the party from within. Its parliamentary bloc, known for being “granitic” for its strong attendance and vote discipline, wavered on some controversial issues instrumental to keeping alliances alive in the past, but the leadership’s lobbying eventually succeeded. In April 2014, called to vote on the “lustration provision” which would have barred former cadres of now dissolved Ben Ali’s Democratic Constitutional Rally from taking part in the elections – which ultimately failed to pass by just a single vote – only five Ennahda’s MPs voted against the provision according to Ghannouchi’s instructions and 39 voted for it (out of 69). The others within the group either abstained or failed to attend therefore indirectly voting down the law. In September 2017, almost half of the Nahdaouis (Ennahda MPs) voted in favour of the unpopular “administrative reconciliation” law spearheaded by Essebsi that would grant amnesty to civil servants involved in economic crimes under the previous regime, while most of the other members of the block were absent, and only five opposed it.

Recently, some key defections are telling evidence of internal disappointment. Ennahda’s Secretary General, Zied Laadhari, dissociated from his bloc and voted no-confidence for Jemli’s proposal, after stepping down from his position within the party and as Minister of Development, Investment and International Cooperation in November 2019 in open contestation with leadership. Remarkably, two well-known cadres of the younger generation, Hicham Laarayedh (former premier Ali Laarayedh’s son) and Zied Boumakhla, a Shura member, submitted their resignations from the party following a couple of other incidents.

For the sake of clarity, different currents, divisions, and tensions within the party are not a novelty. What is new, as compared to the past years, is that they are much more in the open in their dissent and contestation to Ghannouchi’s leadership has hardened. His term as President of the party will come to an end with the party’s next National Congress, which was meant to be held in the spring of 2020 but seems on hold. If the May 2016 tenth Congress is widely remembered for having marked the separation between the haraka (movement) and the hizb (party), roughly corresponding to the division between the preaching and proselytising activities and the strictly political ones, the new Congress will be a key moment to take stock of this path and decide whether to set the party’s future priorities and agenda despite of or in discontinuity with the leadership of Ghannouchi, who has been guiding it for forty years now. Undoubtedly, the new government or new elections will tip the scale for future considerations within a party whose strategy of unwavering compromise and flexibility assured its survival in the post-2011 context. At the same time, making the survival (and perhaps that of its leadership) the top priority of its political actions, increasingly distances the party from the revolutionary and reformist path it claimed to embody in 2011 and may turn out to be a highly costly moral hazard.


Looking ahead

To date, the prospects of new elections would no doubt not be rosy if seen from different angles. First, with the same electoral law and in the absence of thresholds for entry into parliament (a law  proposed to raise it to 5% was recently squeezed into the Assembly’s agenda the day before the confidence vote), Tunisia is likely to have a similarly fractured legislature. Second, both the national elections authority and the population are still “recovering” from the three separate polls for the presidential and parliamentary elections last September and October. This is why many observers are afraid that dwindling turnout will translate into no interest in another vote so soon.

Meanwhile, the country is currently administered by the caretaker PM Youssef Chahed and his outgoing government. Although there is a parliament in place to perform its normal duties, its time is largely consumed by the government formation process.

This is a luxury that the country cannot afford with much needed reforms to address lagging economic growth (hovering at 1% in 2019), inflation (recorded at almost 6% in January 2020), and high rates of unemployment (15 %). Also, the absence of a Constitutional Court to settle disputes complicates the picture even further.

Since 2011, Tunisia has been standing on the precipice on several occasions, and eventually found a political solution to come back from the brink. Yet, emergency measures keeping governance on hold have been increasingly eroding people’s confidence in the new system, as the populace is far more concerned with everyday pressing and unmet social concerns. Seen from the street, what might look like rational and thought-out strategic calculations by political parties convey the impression, at times, of being random choices by actors who play the odds.


Photo: Fethi Belaid / AFP

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