Tunisian parliament speaker Rachid al-Ghannouchi is shown on January 11 announcing that the proposed government of Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Habib Jemli failed to pass a vote of confidence. (Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Experts Blame Political Divide, Lack of Foresight for Failed Tunisian Gov’t

Unclear whether this strengthens or hurts country that is sole success story to emerge from Arab Spring

Tunisia’s parliament failed to ratify a government proposed by Prime Minister-designate Habib Jemli, of the largely Islamist Ennahda party, and analysts are citing, among other things, a deep political divide.

After two months of trying, Jemli was over 35 votes shy of the 109 required for a vote of confidence. Most of his support came from his own party.

Sarah Yerkes, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, blames the impasse, at least in part, on Tunisia’s extremely partisan environment.

“The government fell because this parliament is incredibly fractured: The two largest parties only have 24% and 18% [Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia, respectively] of the seats, making any [agreement] very difficult,” she told The Media Line.

Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, agrees.

“The October 2019 [legislative] elections in Tunisia produced an ideologically polarized parliament,” he told The Media Line. “While Ennahda won the most seats, other parties that differ ideologically with Ennahda also captured a significant portion of the vote.”

But Aymen Zaghdoudi, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Carthage in Tunis, argues that Jemli’s failure was due to his own lack of foresight and his party’s refusal to make concessions.

“He started to talk with all political parties without any plan, he didn’t have a [set construct] of whether the next government would be liberal or conservative, and [he] lost at least three weeks in such meetings without general substance,” he told The Media Line.

Zaghdoudi explained that there are essentially two groups within Tunisian politics – the “revolutionary” faction comprised of three parties, and the four parties that make up the traditionalist, old-guard faction. He contends that Jemli failed to present both groups with a coherent set of goals for the country’s future.

Arnaud Kurze, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, concurs.

“After [Jemli presented] his cabinet to parliament on January 2, criticism came quickly from all sides, [saying] that it was neither independent nor clearly partisan,” he said.

According to Zaghdoudi, when it came to negotiations with the more reformist faction, Ennahda would not agree to the demands of the Democratic Stream, which wanted party members to head three specific ministries.

“The [party] wanted the justice, administrative reform and interior [portfolios] to ensure that Ennahda doesn’t harass or hide crimes from the people,” he noted.

Ultimately, the party refused to give the Democratic Stream control of the Interior Ministry, and it, in turn, refused to support a government.

Tunisian President Kais Saied has to select a new candidate within 10 days to gain the support of Tunisia’s legislature. This cycle can go on endlessly until someone is successful or until the president decides to call for new parliamentary elections.

Zaghdoudi says the names now under consideration to try to form a government are not yet available. He does not think the president will resort to calling a new round of voting. He believes that by early February, the future of Tunisia will be more resolved.

“The situation will be more clear in the next month whether we will have a government with or without Islamists,” he said.

Significantly, experts disagree about whether Jemli’s failure to form a parliament is a setback or a boost to the only country to emerge successfully as a democracy after the Arab Spring.

Emiliano Alessandri, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington, believes that the current political situation has the potential to tarnish Tunisia’s democracy.

“Democracy is almost always a messy process, but Tunisia is facing instability at a very critical juncture and is an island of democratic governance surrounded by various types of non-democratic rule,” he told The Media Line.

While Alessandri does not believe that Tunisia will go back to being a dictatorship, the recent circumstances bolster the case for those who argue against a Democratic government.

“The risk of full regression is to be ruled out because voters are not nostalgic for the ancient regime,” he said. “But if political leaders fail to reach the necessary consensus, and Tunisia continues to underperform economically, this will give ammunition – domestically and regionally – to those who argue that democracy has failed to deliver.”

Zaghdoudi disagrees.

“Personally, I think what’s happening in Tunisia is a very good step forward in our democratic life since 2011. The position of the Ennahda party, which was always a component of a stable regime, now forces more modern politicians and non-Islamists to review the former’s position in power,” he said.

“Even if we don’t form a government,” he continued, “a new election will still be an exercise in democracy.”

The Wilson Center’s Kurze also believes that Tunisia’s democracy could be strengthened as a result of the current bypass.

“To put it metaphorically, the relatively young democracy is going through a phase of growing pains or puberty,” he said. “As long as the procedural protocols are followed by all involved players, the institutions will emerge from this period much stronger, consolidating democratic norms and the rules of the political game in the country.”

The position of Carnegie’s Yerkes falls somewhere in the middle.

“This… is more of a step sideways for Tunisia writ large. There is a process to deal with this, so it isn’t a crisis or anything like that,” she said.

Finally, the University of Denver’s Hashemi believes that the failure to form a government both helps and hinders Tunisia’s democracy.

“On the plus side, politics in Tunisia is now subject to the rule of law. Democratic negotiation and bargaining is at the foundation of Tunisian politics,” he said. “On the negative side, Tunisia’s politics is now paralyzed….”

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