Monday’s parliamentary decision to delay a confidence vote on Tunisia’s new government, which was initially scheduled for Tuesday, should be a wake-up call to Prime Minister-designate Habib Essid to be more inclusive.
The delay followed statements from some of the largest parties in the new parliament that they would vote against his choice of cabinet. Parliamentary rejection would mean the president appointing someone else to try to form another government. Essid’s initial cabinet was dominated by Nidaa Tounes, the largest party in parliament – with 86 seats – following October’s elections.
It also included three ministers from the Free Patriotic Union, which came third with 16 seats. Some analysts had predicted straightforward approval given the predominantly secular new parliament, but resistance was unsurprising. A coalition would be necessary to achieve a majority in the 217-seat parliament, but Nidaa Tounes and the Free Patriotic Union combined would fall seven seats short of the minimum 109 required.
Essid’s efforts were doomed by the lack of any posts for the second, fourth and fifth largest parties; the Islamist Ennahda (69 seats), the leftist Popular Front (15), and the secular Afek Tounes (8). He was naive to think they would accept a cabinet from which they were absent, and naive of analysts to think parties would back Nidaa Tounes simply because they are not Islamist.
Another sticking point was the number of people in the new government who served under dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Among them is Essid, whose nomination as prime minister was widely criticised for that reason.
Popular Front leader Hamma Hammami had stated that with Essid as premier, “the real power” would lie with the president, another former regime figure and founder of Nidaa Tounes, which includes Ben Ali officials.
That Essid is now negotiating with Ennahda, the Popular Front and Afek Tounes raises hope that the next cabinet will be more consensual.
The question is whether Ennahda will be included, or whether one or both of the other parties will be brought in at the expense of the moderate Islamists, who had the most seats in the previous parliament.
Including either the Popular Front or Afek Tounes would achieve a parliamentary majority, but it would be slim and hence unstable. The majority could be raised slightly by including smaller parties, but their few seats makes this unviable. It could make the government more unstable, susceptible to internal bickering with more partners, and give small parties disproportionate influence.
A coalition of Nidaa Tounes, the Free Patriotic Union, the Popular Front and Afek Tounes would have a more comfortable majority with 125 seats. However, it would still be fewer than the 138 seats of the Ennahda-led “troika” government that included the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol, which was itself challenging to maintain.
Force and determination
It depends on how determined Nidaa Tounes and its potential secular partners are to shun the Islamists, and whether doing so is wise. Since its election defeat, Ennahda has expressed willingness to join Nidaa Tounes in a national unity government. Such a coalition would enjoy a strong majority that would enable it – theoretically at least – to implement difficult security policies and economic reforms.
A coalition of Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda – which is still politically influential despite its defeat – could arguably be a true reflection of Essid’s promise of ‘a government for all Tunisians’, rather than one for all secular Tunisians.
Security measures would include a crackdown on Islamist militants, whose ranks may be bolstered if Ennahda’s political exclusion elicits a sense of alienation. Economic measures would include reforms in line with a $1.78bn loan agreement from the International Monetary Fund that has already involved new taxes, a cut in fuel subsidies, and currency depreciation.
A coalition of Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda – which is still politically influential despite its defeat – could arguably be a true reflection of Essid’s promise of “a government for all Tunisians”, rather than one for all secular Tunisians. Ennahda paid the democratic price for its mistakes in government, and many believe it should not be rewarded with cabinet posts when it was voted out. Such sentiment is understandable, and a coalition of ideologically different parties might prove unworkable.
However, there is a risk of placing party interests above that of the nation. Tunisia has been by far the most stable Arab Spring state, largely because its post-revolution politics has been shaped by negotiation, compromise and inclusion. Ennahda showed maturity after its electoral victory by joining with two leftist, secular parties when it only needed one of them to form a parliamentary majority, and could have chosen other, more ideologically similar partners.
It also showed maturity by accepting its election defeat and congratulating Nidaa Tounes, rather than contesting the results and plunging the country into chaos and uncertainty.
Tunisia’s transition is neither complete nor assured. Until it is, a continuation of politics by broad consensus may be the safest option. However, that is easier said than done. Working with Ennahda is categorically opposed by Nidaa Tounes hardliners, so the latter party – itself a coalition – could fracture if it reaches out to the Islamists.
If Ennahda ends up excluded from the cabinet, it must act as a responsible opposition and not be seen as gratuitously hindering governance. That would further hurt its standing among a population already disillusioned with it.
Whatever the next government’s make-up, politicians and parties must place the national interest above their own, particularly at this delicate time for Tunisia. The devastating repercussions of not doing so can be seen in neighbouring Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world.
Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, Al Arabiya News, The National, The Middle East magazine and the Middle East Eye.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.