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Tunisia’s Not-So-Islamist Islamist Candidate Gets Chance to Head Government
Supporters of Tunisia’s Ennahda party celebrate in October 2019 after exit polls gave them a good showing in the country’s parliamentary election. (Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Tunisia’s Not-So-Islamist Islamist Candidate Gets Chance to Head Government

President tasks Ennahda representative Habib Jemli with assembling coalition

President Kais Saied of Tunisian has asked Habib Jemli, the Ennahda Party candidate, to form the next government, after his moderate Islamist movement won the October 6 legislative elections.

Jemli’s selection on Friday comes after Tunisia’s parliament elected Ennahda Party head Rached Ghannouchi as speaker on November 13.

Still, it is unclear whether Jemli will be able to form a government. His party won just 52 out of 217 seats in the parliament.

Aymen Zaghdoudi, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Carthage in Tunis, explained that while a slim majority coalition of 109 seats was the minimum required to create a government, support from 140-160 legislators was needed to comfortably pass legislation. Zaghdoudi believes that Jemli will be unable to get more than 125 lawmakers to back him.

If Jemli fails to form a government within two months, Saied will designate another candidate to try who will have an additional 60 days to do so. If that person is also unsuccessful, Tunisia will be forced to hold early elections. Most parties do not want that to happen, which is why Zaghdoudi believes that Jemli will succeed in forming a government.

“Some political parties might be afraid to lose some seats [if another election is held], so they will vote to form the government with Jemli for tactical reasons, not because they are convinced by his [plans for the government],” Zaghdoudi said. “This guy has no vision. He’s just going to carry out [Ennahda’s wishes].”

However, Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, is skeptical of Jemli’s ability to play kingmaker.

“Given the fractured nature of the electoral system, the challenge that Jemli faces is forming a coalition government. This will require months of negotiations and significant compromises around policies and a distribution of ministerial appointments,” Hashemi told The Media Line. “It’s a tall order given that some of parties that have significant representation in parliament also possess ideological agendas that differ significantly from [Ennahda’s].”

Hashemi contends that even if Jemli cobbles together a coalition, it will be under constant threat of collapse.

“Forming a coalition government is one thing; keeping it together is another challenge altogether,” he said.

The University of Carthage’s Zaghdoudi contended that Ennahda’s selection of Jemli, technically an independent, as its candidate for prime minister, was meant to assuage the international community’s fear of an Islamist government in the only country to have successfully weathered the Arab Spring rebellions against dictatorships in the Arab world that began in 2011.

The “international will is against Islamists everywhere. Ennahda selected someone who does not hold party membership to persuade the US and the Western world that the chief of the government is not Islamist,” Zaghdoudi said.

In doing so, the movement gets someone with a less than domineering attitude who will still implement part of its agenda.

“They want to appoint someone who doesn’t have a strong personality so they can put pressure on him, so that’s he’ll appoint their people into key administration roles in Tunisia to keep themselves secure,” Zaghdoudi said.

The impact of a non-Islamist Islamist premier on Tunisia and the Ennahda Party remains to be seen.

“It depends on the policies that are pursued,” the University of Denver Hashemi said. “The main problems in Tunisia are economic. If the new [prime minister] can improve conditions for Tunisians, [Ennahda] stands to benefit in the next elections.”

The Ennahda Party’s non-decisive elections victory comes followed a less than stellar showing in Tunisia’s first round of presidential elections on September 15.

According to Dr. Mariam Salehi, a postdoctoral fellow in the Global Governance research unit at the Berlin Social Science Center, Ennahda’s mixed results in the presidential and legislative elections can be attributed to its late start in the former.

“Ennahda entered the presidential race very late, maybe too late to do really well. They didn’t have a candidate when the last official polls were published,” she told The Media Line.

Salehi also contends that the elections’ scheduling had a significant impact on the results.

“I think the timing of having the first round [of presidential elections] before parliamentary elections led to the dynamic where very few candidates dropped out and there were very few strategic [partnerships]. I think this would have looked differently if the parliamentary elections had been first and the various forces had more of a feeling of how they would be doing [in the presidential elections].”

Saied won the presidential runoff elections on October 13.

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