Tunisia’s political wrangling explained in 600 words

Uncertainty in the North African country after Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh resigns amid allegations of corruption.

Elyes Fakhfakh
Last month, an independent MP published documents indicating the prime minister owned shares in companies that had won government contracts [File: Fethi Belaid/AFP]

After just five months in office, Tunisia’s Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh has called it a day.

His resignation on Wednesday came on the heels of a political scandal that has seen critics – most notably the Ennahdha party – accuse the head of government of abusing his authority for personal gain.

Here, Al Jazeera takes a look at the reasons behind Fakhfakh’s departure and what lies ahead for the North African country.

How did Fakfakh become PM?

Tunisia held a parliamentary election in October 2019 that saw Ennahdha secure 52 seats in the 217-member Parliament.

As the largest parliamentary force, the self-styled Muslim Democrats had chosen Habib Jemli, an independent, for the post of prime minister.

Jemli’s proposed lineup, however, failed to secure Parliament’s backing, leaving President Kais Saied in charge of naming the country’s next head of government.

Saied in late January nominated Fakhfakh, who a month later managed to win parliamentary approval for his coalition government.

When did the crisis begin?

Almost as soon as Fakhfakh was picked by the president.

The 48-year-old, an engineer by training and a former finance minister, drew the ire of Ennahdha after announcing his government would exclude parties suspected of corruption or whose ideology did not align with the goals of the 2011 revolution.

While Ennahdha had run its campaign on an anti-corruption platform, it quickly changed course and called for the inclusion of media mogul Nabil Karoui and his Qalb Tounes party.

In addition to run-ins with the law, Karoui has been accused of using his influential Nessma TV to bolster his political ambitions before the vote.

In the end, the prospect of new elections was said to have deterred Ennahdha and other parties from rejecting Fakhfakh’s government.

Did Fakhfakh lose Parliament’s confidence?

In recent weeks, Ennahdha had increasingly voiced its frustration with Fakhfakh, mainly over an alleged conflict of interest. Other factors, including the prime minister’s disregard for Ennahdha ministers in the decision-making process, are believed to also have played a role. 

Last month, an independent legislator published documents showing Fakhfakh owned shares in companies that won government contracts worth 44 million dinars ($15m).

The prime minister denied the accusations and promised he would step down if investigators found any evidence of wrongdoing.

His voluntary departure last week came after Ennahdha said it would file a motion of no confidence in Parliament. That threat, however, was made obsolete when Saied stepped in and called on Fakhfakh to resign.

Why did Saied step in?

Tunisia’s political system is complex.

While Saied is the head of state, his mandate is constitutionally limited to foreign affairs and defence. 

The prime minister is responsible for the day-to-day running of the government and steering economic policy.

As such, when Ennahdha leader and Speaker Rached Ghannouchi congratulated Libya’s internationally recognised government on fending off an offensive by renegade commander Khalifa Haftar, it seemed to many Ghannouchi was overstepping his bounds. 

By calling on Fakhfakh to step down, Saied – a former constitutional law professor who won by a landslide in last year’s presidential runoff vote – effectively pre-empted Ennahdha from potentially having the upper hand in the next government’s formation.

Had Ennahdha succeeded in removing Fakhfakh via a no-confidence vote, it would have been tasked to form the country’s next government.

What next?

Fakhfakh will now lead a caretaker administration while the president must nominate a replacement who will have until August 26 to form a new government.

Failure to agree on a new head of government will lead to Parliament’s dissolution and new elections within three months.

Max Gallien, research fellow at the UK-based Institute of Development Studies, said Tunisia’s political crisis stems from last year’s legislative and presidential elections when a “fractured Parliament without a mandate and a popular president without a parliamentary base” were voted into office.

“If the last days are any indication, building a stable government may take more than just a new prime minister,” Gallien said.

Source: Al Jazeera