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Is Tunisia Going to Early Elections?
A Tunisian woman stands behind a voting booth at a polling station in the capital Tunis on October 6, 2019. (Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images)

Is Tunisia Going to Early Elections?

President Saied to dissolve parliament if new government doesn’t win vote of confidence by Thursday

If the legislature does not approve a new government by Thursday, Tunisians will go to the ballot box four and a half years ahead of schedule, amid high unemployment and inflation.

Prime Minister-designate Elyes Fakhfakh submitted his proposed cabinet to President Kais Saied on Saturday, but before it could be officially announced, the moderate Islamist Ennahdha party − the largest in parliament, with 52 out of 217 seats − said it was withdrawing its support.

A caretaker government has been in place since the October 2019 legislative elections. The previous prime minister-designate, Habib Jemli, failed to win a vote of confidence on January 10, by 134 votes to 72 with three abstentions, following two months of parliamentary consultations, plunging the North African nation into an unprecedented constitutional crisis. The new Heart of Tunisia party, with 38 seats the second-largest in parliament, has been left out of Jemli’s proposed coalition, causing tensions.

Nizar Makani, a political analyst and instructor at Tunisia’s Institute of Press and News Science, told The Media Line that Ennahdha refused back the new government out of fear of losing its place in the executive branch.

“Ennahdha doesn’t want things to get out of its hand in the country; it is working toward a solution that guarantees its presence in the executive authority as a primary and first player. It seeks a greater role [in governing the country],” Makani said.

Nevertheless, he explained that civil society organizations, including the Tunisian General Labor Union, were placing tremendous political pressure on Ennahdha to join the proposed coalition because the nation’s “best interest lies in approving a new government and not going to early elections.

“Economic and social indicators are very bad, where the caretaker government can’t form policies or make economic decisions to help the situation,” Makani elaborated. “The country needs a government, and I don’t think Ennahdha wants to take the political responsibility to take the country to early elections given the current situation.”

After the Ennahdha Movement came in second in October’s vote, losing the chance to form the new government, President Saied on November 15 tasked Jemli to form one based on a proposal by Ennahdha’s Shura Council, a proposal that came as a surprise even to those within the movement.

Ayman Hirbawi, a Tunisian journalist and media analyst, explained to The Media Line that Ennahdha was supportive of the Heart of Tunisia party, which was left out of the proposed new government because of corruption suspicions and cases against its leaders and members.

“Ennahdha is defending Heart of Tunisia in an attempt to create a certain balance that enables it [Ennahdha to have] greater control of things, but the movement has lost ground politically; it has 52 seats out of 217; Ennahdha can’t decide things alone … at the same time, there are huge gaps between the political parties,” Hirbawi said.

He said that politically, early elections were the best option for Tunisia, but not in terms of the economy and society.

“The economic situation is very bad and requires a stable political situation to save it,” Hirbawi said.

Donia Bin Othman, a Tunisian political activist and lawyer, told The Media Line that Ennahdha was unhappy with the proposed government’s structure, as it failed to obtain the Justice, Interior or Information Technology ministries. “The movement wants these portfolios, to control the judiciary system in the country, which explains its announced condition demanding the involvement of Heart of Tunisia in the new government,” she said.

Surprisingly, she added that Heart of Tunisia might actually vote confidence in the proposed government, so its legislators would have parliamentary immunity in the corruption cases against them.

Bin Othman said that if the proposed government failed to will parliament’s confidence, she, as a human rights advocate, would prefer to dissolve the legislature, “which is what President Kais Saied has suggested.”

Agricultural engineer Jemli, born in 1959 in the Kairouan Governorate in east-central Tunisia, was a junior minister in the first Ennahdha-led government formed in 2011 after the fall of longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to a pro-democracy uprising. He had little involvement in political affairs before the revolution, and describes himself as an independent.

The 61-year-old Saied’s election as president in October was a sharp rebuke to the political establishment that has dominated Tunis since the 2011 Arab Spring, which actually began in Tunisia. However, he has been faced by a deeply divided parliament, which did and still does present a huge challenge in terms of establishing a ruling coalition.

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