Tunisia unity government stirs crisis in leading party

Nidaa Tounes is still managing the fallout after parliament approved a unity government including rival party Ennahda.

Tunisia - Ennahda
The tensions within Nidaa Tounes revolve around the ideological opposition of some members to partnering with Ennahda [EPA]

Tunis – The announcement this month by Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid of a national unity government including the moderate Islamist party Ennahda has touched off a crisis inside Nidaa Tounes, the leading political party in the country’s parliament.

Despite the government receiving a vote of confidence from more than 75 percent of the parliament’s members on February 5, Nidaa is still managing the fallout from the decision.

The tensions within Nidaa revolve around the ideological opposition of some members to partnering with Ennahda, along with a lack of internal democratic structures, leading many in the party’s ranks to feel unrepresented in the leadership’s decisions.

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In response to the crisis, Nidaa has developed plans for the establishment of a representative political steering committee and the election of new leadership at a party congress tentatively scheduled for September.

Nidaa came together in 2012 as an ad hoc coalition to oppose the influence of Ennahda, which won a plurality of seats in Tunisia’s first post-revolution parliament in an election that saw secularists, liberals and leftists split their votes among a wide array of parties.

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As a coalition composed of trade unionists, leftists, businesspeople, human rights advocates and members of the former regime, ideological tensions have existed within Nidaa from the beginning.

“Don’t forget that it’s only been two and a half years and everybody inside the party is coming from different political currents,” Wafa Makhlouf, one of the party’s founders, told Al Jazeera.

The leftists within Nidaa are particularly opposed to cooperation with Ennahda due to animosity between the two political camps dating back to the 1970s, according to Youssef Cherif, a Tunisian political analyst. But despite reports that 70 of the 89 members of Nidaa’s parliamentary group were unhappy with the inclusion of Ennahda in the government, only one member voted against it and four abstained.

The announcement itself, however, caught many in Nidaa off guard and sparked anger. The morning of the vote, prominent figures in Nidaa were still insisting that Ennahda would not be included in the government because they could not justify the partnership to the party’s supporters, many of whom voted for Nidaa based on its campaign promise to remove Ennahda from power if elected, Cherif said.

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Nidaa’s leadership only informed the executive committee of the decision in a meeting the day before the government was announced. The executive committee drafted a recommendation against the inclusion of Ennahda that was supported by a majority of its members, but it was too late for the recommendation to be taken into consideration, Makhlouf said.

As a matter of principle we were outraged that we were not consulted. We cannot accept this secret and very behind-the-scenes way of doing things.

Issam Matoussi, Nidaa Tounes MP

The leadership also did not communicate the decision to Nidaa’s parliamentary group prior to the government being announced.

“As a matter of principle we were outraged that we were not consulted,” Issam Matoussi, a MP from Nidaa, told Al Jazeera. “We cannot accept this secret and very behind-the-scenes way of doing things.”

Despite the anger in the parliamentary group, the night before the vote of confidence, most of Nidaa’s MPs felt the preservation of the party was more important than their personal grievances. Ennahda and other political parties have been waiting to cheer if Nidaa disintegrates, Matoussi said. “Voting against the government of your party, this [would] be the last nail in the coffin.”

Instead of letting the conflict over including Ennahda pull Nidaa apart, the party has been attempting to channel its frustrations into a drive for internal reform. Because it came together so quickly, Nidaa has not yet developed internal democratic structures and plans for a party congress have been perpetually delayed, according to Cherif.

The conflict inside Nidaa prompted the parliamentary group, executive committee and founders committee to develop a strategy to solidify the party’s internal structures to ensure its stability. The result is a plan to create a 30-member political steering committee composed of the 14 members of the founders committee and 16 members elected from the parliamentary group and executive committee, according to Makhlouf.

Much of Nidaa’s leadership received positions in the government. As a result, the party needs to fill the positions they left vacant. The parliamentary group is pushing for new leadership to be selected through a democratic vote at a party congress tentatively scheduled for September, according to Matoussi.  

The push for more representative structures may have staved off a broader crisis inside Nidaa for now. If the new government is not able to tackle Tunisia’s daunting security and economic challenges, however, then the party may still face blowback from its supporters.

“If our electors see a little bit of an improvement they will quickly forget that Ennahda is in the government,” Myriam Boujbel, a Nidaa MP, told Al Jazeera. If the government fails, however, the consequences could be disastrous for the party in future elections.   

Follow Eric Reidy on Twitter: @eric_reidy

Source: Al Jazeera