The Tunisian Marsh: Between Political and Moral Crisis
Federica Zoja 13 December 2019

It is an uphill start that of Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Jemli, who is engaged in long and intricate consultations for the formation of the new Government, especially because of the absence of a net parliamentary majority. At the legislative vote last October 6, in fact, no party achieved the 109 seats necessary to gain absolute control of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People: the risk of “ungovernability”, which the elections should have removed, once again appears high.


Fragile consensus 

Therefore, working on the government puzzle for a month, Jemli says he is mainly interested in national unity, in the conciliation of all demands, in the re-launch of a common project of social and economic development in the name of transparency. However, the greatest difficulties in completing this project seem to come from his closest allies: according to increasingly insistent rumors in the press, the Prime Minister is opposed precisely by the leaders of his own party. An independent politician, but close to the Ennahda Islamists, Jemli was suggested to the President of the Republic Kaïs Saïed by moderate Islamists, who came out of the polls as winners. But the consensus surrounding the name of the sixty-year-old agricultural engineer was short-lived: apparently, the leader Rached Ghannouchi (since last November 13 also speaker of the Assembly) did not like Jemli’s initial moves.

To understand the whole picture and the impasse in which Habib Jemli finds himself, it is useful to describe the parliamentary order. Today, 54 MPs sit in the Bardo Assembly under the banner of Ennahda, led by Noureddine Bhiri; 41 for the Democratic Group, chaired by Ghazi Chaouachi; 38 with the newcomer Qalb Tounes, led by Hatem Mliki; 21 for the Islamist coalition Al-Karama, chaired by Seif Eddine Makhlouf; for the Free Desturian Party (PDL) 17 members, chaired by Abir Moussi; 15 with the National Reform, with the leadership of Hassouna Nasfi; the block of Tahya Tounes, with 14 MPs, is chaired by Mustapha Ben Ahmed; 9 MPs with al-Mostakbal, led by Adnen Brahim. And finally, the independent group, consisting of 8 deputies.

In this fragmented framework, Jemli’s scope of action appears to be limited, and under special supervision by the Islamist party. From the beginning of the legislature, even before the prime minister explained his objectives, Ghannouchi declared that the formation of the new government in Tunisia “does not concern the Qalb Tounes party, according to our electoral promises”.
Likewise the president of the Council of the shura (the Advisory Council) of Ennahda, Abdelkarim Harouni said: “We will not make any alliance neither with Qalb Tounes nor with the Free Desturian Party to form the government”. Externations that actually bypass Jemli and his role, blocking his decision-making autonomy.

A few days later, Ghannouchi was even clearer, expressing himself on the choice of the new prime minister, Habib Jemli, “made on the basis of his abilities”, especially in the economic sector. Consequently, “the appointments of the various ministers will have to be made on the basis of competence rather than on political affiliation,” he added, stressing that his party “wants the broadest political representation, but not at the expense of competence”.


Struggling for confidence

Hence the deluge of controversy and fierce criticism in the local press: the detractors of the Islamist front are used to emphasizing that Islamist leadership always chooses the same old and “beaten up” candidates, regardless of their curriculum. Meanwhile, however, it seems that the agronomist Jemli – whose profile is curiously similar to his predecessor  Youssef Chahed – is acting on two different tracks to recover freedom of action: an official one, dictated by the party, and a second one, behind the scenes, true to his harmonizing personality.  And in fact, for weeks, Hatem Mliki, a Member of Parliament from Qalb Tounes, has been arguing that his party will support the Government, having reached an agreement with Ennahda, provided that the Prime minister is a truly independent figure.

While the game of appointments, therefore, is prolonged beyond all expectations, divergences – at times violent – between Islamists and members of the PDL, a lay formation with undisclosed sympathies for the era of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, have slowed down the process of the 2020 Budget Law, and highlighted that this ruling class is no different from that of the past.

The show that the Assembly put on in a broadcasted session broadcasted on public television last December 3rd for the discussions on the draft Finance Law has discouraged public opinion. The Parliament has become a boxing ring, with insults and heavy accusations. Nothing new compared to the past and this is the biggest problem: in 2019 almost 8 million Tunisians faced a long electoral marathon to change the present and move towards a more democratic, prosperous and transparent future.

Decision paralysis and brutalization of the political climate have obvious consequences: first and foremost, the debate on the disadvantages of political pluralism returns. For the nostalgic for the dictatorship, pluralism is synonymous with chaos and amorality. Regarding the ethical problem, the statement by the President of the national anti-corruption body (Inlucc) Chawki Tabib that corruption in Tunisia has reached the highest institutional levels, has shocked public opinion. In this regard, it should be remembered that the transparency issue was the workhorse of the jurist and constitutionalist Kaïs Saïed during the election campaign. So far, however, the political class has not given any concrete signals of an effort for change. This missed turn cannot but generate great worries in the international community as well: the risk of apolitical void, despite the election of a new President and a new Parliament, remains; the impatience towards institutions grows; the possibility that radicalism finds new spaces increases, while the Tunisian crisis could turn from temporary to chronic. And finally, less economic and more systemic.



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