Tunisia: Moderate Islamist Party Picks One of Its Own as Next PM

Tunisia took a step forward Friday in forming a new government following rollercoaster October elections, with the moderate Islamist Ennahda party proposing a prime minister from its own ranks to lead it.  Former junior agriculture minister, Habib Jemli, 60, will now have two months to form a government. If he fails to do so, newly elected President Kais Saied can tap another candidate.

Still, it remains uncertain whether any future government emerging from a politically fractured parliament — along with an untested president — can tackle the country’s massive economic and employment challenges.

With Tunisia considered the Arab Spring’s first and so far only relative success story, this latest twist in its bumpy post-revolutionary path is being closely watched abroad. Some analysts hail last month’s elections — where disaffected voters ousted establishment candidates in favor of political outsiders — as a messy but clear affirmation of democracy. Others fear the next government may prove just as disappointing as the last one.

“The real issue is the economy,” said analyst Hamadi Redissi, president of the Tunisian Observatory for Democratic Transition research organization. “Can it deliver what people are asking for — jobs and prosperity? That remains to be seen.”

Voters’ message

Since its 2011 revolution, the North African country has seen shrinking growth and soaring joblessness, the same toxic ingredients that triggered the uprising. Its key tourism sector is only recently rebounding following 2015 terrorist attacks. Tunisia has also earned the unwelcome record as one of the largest exporters of terrorist fighters.

Upcoming negotiations to form a new government will be a key test for Ennahda, a once-banned movement that emerged as a key part in Tunisia’s post-revolution power structure. While coming out ahead in last month’s legislative polls, it took a hit along with other establishment parties — capturing just 52 of the 217 parliamentary seats, down from its previous 69.

“We’ve heard the voters’ message,” said senior Ennahda member Abdelkarim Harouni. “We can’t fail in making the reforms Tunisians are waiting for.”

But Ennahda may have to strike an unlikely alliance with a former political nemesis to form a winning coalition, analysts say — notably media mogul Nabil Karoui’s Heart of Tunisia party, which placed second in October voting. Earlier this week, Heart of Tunisia backed Ennahda’s controversial leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, as speaker of parliament.

While claiming talks between the two parties to form a new government are not currently happening, “anything is possible,” Harouni said, noting both share similar poverty-fighting goals.

Ennahda will also need to strike a deal with other smaller parties or individuals to get the minimum 109 votes to pass legislation. At least two it has been negotiating with are adamantly against any alliance with Heart of Tunisia, analyst Redissi said.

“Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia are pragmatic,” he added. “They know Tunisia must be governed by balancing powers and managing institutions. They know the limits and the red lines.”

Still, a power-sharing deal between the two is politically risky, and supporters of both parties are reportedly unhappy about the prospects. With Karoui facing corruption allegations and a Heart of Tunisia lawmaker accused of sexual harassment, it may also undermine Ennahda’s clean government vows.

An untested president

The next government will also have to work with President Saied, a constitutional lawmaker with no political experience or party affiliation. While Tunisian presidential powers are limited to foreign and defense issues, Saied’s popularity gives him symbolic heft. His shoestring, door-to-door campaign energized voters, especially young Tunisians yearning for a return to the country’s revolutionary spirit.

Saied’s conservative social agenda, opposing gay rights and equal legal inheritance among men and women, may align with Ennahda’s. Not so his support for direct, rather than parliamentary democracy — views Ennahda’s Harouni described as little-tested “theories.”

Still the party’s biggest challenge may be itself. Ennahda will no longer be the minority member of a coalition government facing a country in crisis.

“It won’t be the government behind the scenes,” analyst Redissi said. “Young people need jobs and older people need a better life.  By picking a prime minister from its own ranks, it will have to assume responsibility.”

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