Tunisian dilemma: Deal or no deal?

As presidential elections approach, analysts say the country needs new democratic powers and national agenda.

Essebsi has vowed to restore the prestige of the state by providing much-sought stability [Getty]
Essebsi has vowed to restore the prestige of the state by providing much-sought stability [Getty]

Tunis – Official results in Tunisia’s first free legislative elections have restored the strongly secular tradition of the country’s politics, handing a relative majority to secular party Nidaa Tounes (Tunisian Call) and entitling it to nominate the prime minister and to lead a ruling coalition.

The party also has a stake in the presidential election, fielding its charismatic leader Beji Caid Essebsi, 87, who according to the polls is the front-runner for the job.

Essebsi has vowed to restore the prestige of the state by providing much-sought stability to a country destabilised by political and economic crises and plagued by terrorist attacks and two political assassinations since the 2011 revolution.

If Essebsi is confirmed as president, too much power will be handed to Nidaa Tounes, the party that received the most votes in the country’s October 26 legislative elections but stopped short of winner-take-all. Nidaa Tounes won 86 seats, while the Islamist Ennahda (Awakening) party came second, with 69 of the 217 parliamentary seats.

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In order to garner the necessary 109-seat majority, Nidaa Tounes has to govern in a coalition, but there are major challenges on the horizon. 

“Nidaa Tounes will be able to have a strong coalition block in the parliament with a 50+ majority, as some parties like Afek Tounes and Popular Front have expressed their willingness to join,” Alaya Allani, a professor at Manouba University, told Al Jazeera.

Professor Alaya Allani believes the most likely outcome will be a government composed of two-thirds technocrats and one-third politicians  [Hend Hassassi/Al Jazeera]

“What will be hard for Nidaa to achieve is getting the two-thirds of the seats to ensure a wide approval of its cabinet, which will require an overall support when it comes to implementing reforms related to subsidies and other unpopular measures,” Allani said.

The big decision coming up for the leadership of Nidaa Tounes is who their coalition partners will be. The party will either opt for an inclusive coalition that includes Ennahda or drift towards a government with smaller parties, leaving Ennahda in opposition.

Despite all the posturing to the contrary, the raison d’être of Nidaa Tounes – which was founded by left-wing politicians, secularists and former government officials in 2012 – is to provide a counterweight to the rise of Ennahda.

Consequently, any political alliance with Ennahda could turn self-destructive for Nidaa Tounes, invalidating the party’s strategy of discrediting the Islamist party.

Allani says that whichever way the political manoeuvring goes, it will be based on three possible scenarios.

If Essebsi wins the presidency, all executive powers will be shared by him and his party that enjoys a majority in the parliament... This can become a source of worry. Yet, the party cannot and will not be able to govern by itself.

Aziz Krichan, former adviser to President Moncef Marzouki

“The first scenario is the formation of a national unity government as demanded by Ennahda. This scenario is not popular among Nidaa Tounes and its allies. Therefore it will be rejected,” he said.

“The second scenario is having a technocratic government headed by a figure from Nidaa Tounes, and this possibility is also unlikely as many political parties reject this option.

“The most likely option is a government composed of two-thirds technocrats and one-third politicians, with the option of granting minor ministerial posts to Ennahda,” Allani said, noting Essebsi will try to get some support from Ennahda, but he needs to offer something in return.

Nidaa Tounes could also opt to exclude Ennahda and form a coalition government with other smaller parties, but the political debates that flood Tunisian media outlets are mostly against this option.

The majority of political analysts in Tunisia believe the disadvantages of this option far outweigh its advantages, making it a much less desirable choice to meet the challenges the country is facing. They argue that Ennahda remains a significant force in the country and its role is crucial for any future decision-making.

There are also concerns that the distribution of power among scores of political parties would further splinter Tunisian society.

In addition, small parties may exercise no power in the ruling coalition, in that larger partners could use their leverage to wring concessions from them, leading to the emergence of a new authoritarian style of government.

Former presidential adviser Aziz Krichan says Tunisia needs new democratic powers [Rabii Kalboussi/Al Jazeera]

“If Essebsi wins the presidency, all executive powers will be shared by him and his party that enjoys a majority in the parliament and which will nominate a candidate for the prime minister’s office. This can become a source of worry. Yet, the party cannot and will not be able to govern by itself,” Aziz Krichan, a former adviser to President Moncef Marzouki, told Al Jazeera.

“The issue then is not about who to include in the coalition government, but on the basis of what. Unfortunately, all political parties are giving the impression of difference despite the underlying sameness. New bloods should be streamed into the Tunisian political life. All current parties are running out of genuine solutions to the country’s pressing issues and challenges. They all somehow copied and pasted the programmes of Ben Ali’s governments.

“Tunisia needs new democratic powers, unlike Nidaa or Ennahda. Tunisia is in need of a new national agenda that should focus in the coming five years on how to maintain security, improve economy and complete the democratic transition of the country,” Krichan added.

Western countries support the idea of Nidaa Touness and Ennahda collaborating to form a national unity government, bringing in some of the smaller parties as well, while some regional Arab powers differ on the option of including or excluding Ennahda.

“Certain Gulf countries won’t invest a penny in Tunisia if Ennahda is given a bigger role in the coming government. Even rich neighbouring Algeria has reservations,” Allani said. “European countries do not invest much in Tunisia because they are going through a crisis of their own and they are also looking into securing deals with Gulf countries. So for Tunisians to get the Gulf funds, they need to do their calculations right.”

Most Tunisians agree that the formation of any coalition requires all stakeholders to adapt to the new challenges of multiparty government, as fragmentation of political support could lead to a fragile coalition and consequently to political paralysis amid squabbles between the parties over policy issues.

“Any well-trodden path towards democracy has to accommodate dialogue and consensus through consultation and coexistence rather than unilateralism and self-interest,” Krichan said. “That is the only way out to achieve win-win results.”

Hend Hassassi has contributed reporting to this piece.

Source : Al Jazeera

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