A brewing political crisis within the Nidaa Tunis Party — which has led the Tunisian coalition government since 2014 — and that has gone public via President Beji Caid Essebsi is threatening Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s future in office.
On 15 July, President Essebsi, 91, told the privately-owned Nessma TV channel that Chahed should either address the country’s economic and political crisis or resign.
The 42-year-old Chahed was appointed by Essebsi in 2016 in a bid to quell public impatience with the country’s sluggish economy.
But since assuming office in August 2016, Chahed, a proponent of economic liberalisation, has yet to deliver on economic reform or address rising unemployment and inflation.
He is Tunisia’s eighth prime minister since 2011.
Calls for Chahed’s resignation have been echoing for months from various parties, most notably from the president’s son, Hafedh Essebsi, also the executive director of Nidaa Tunis, revealing deep divisions within the ruling party that has extended across the political spectrum.
While the Islamist Ennahda Party supports the continuation of Chahed in office to avert political instability, the powerful UGTT (Tunisian General Labour Union) rejects his economic policy and supports calls for his resignation.
While Chahed and Hafedh Essebsi traded accusations publicly in recent months, the 91-year-old president had remained largely silent until last week.
The political crisis cannot continue, Essebsi said.
When asked by his interviewers about the Chahed government, Essebsi said: “All necks are stretched in the direction of the 2019 [presidential] elections.
If someone is in power, they shouldn’t be thinking of 2019, but what’s happening now,” in an indirect reference to Chahed’s purported ambition to run for the presidential elections.
In November 2019, Tunisian voters are expected to elect both a new president and parliament — the country’s third elections since the 2011 uprising.
The effect of the power struggle and the president’s intervention has been damaging for Tunisia’s fragile democracy, observers say.
“Both the prime minister and the president’s popularity is going down because of this,” said Youssef Cherif, a Tunis-based analyst.
“This is weakening democracy, because it makes Tunisians sceptical about its outcomes. The current crisis is being used by all the anti-democracy elements in the country to say that democracy doesn’t work,” Cherif told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The rift between Chahed and Hafedh Essibs, 57, exacerbated following Ennahda’s victory in last month’s local elections, the first held since 2011.
The Islamist party won municipal elections with 27.5 per cent of the vote, while Nidaa Tunis came second with 22.5 per cent.
Ennahda’s candidate Souad Abderhim was elected mayor of the Tunisian capital. The 53-year-old pharmacist who does not wear a head veil has been viewed as part of the Islamist party’s efforts to modernise its image.
The party’s leader, Rached Ghanoushi, 77, made public appearances during the election in a rare suit and tie, which some observers interpreted as a subtle nod to speculation that he will contest the 2019 presidential elections.
Chahed accused Hafedh Essibsi of destroying Nidaa Tunis, thereby negatively affecting state institutions. The latter accused the premier of failing to revive the economy and of using state apparatuses and the media to defame Nidaa Tunis, as well as investing in alliances with the party’s defectors to serve his political agenda.
Inflation rates hit a record high of 7.8 per cent in June and the Tunisian dinar depreciated by 19 per cent last year.
Austerity measures backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) triggered protests early this year against spending cuts and new taxes.
Chahed cabinet’s failure to deliver on economic reform remains the context for calls demanding his resignation. But no Tunisian prime minister since 2011 has addressed the economic situation, which has gotten worse.
“Every time a prime minister was replaced in the past seven years, it was motivated by various reasons, often to be linked to party or personal politics,” said Cherif.
“I don’t see Chahed surviving the current crisis. He doesn’t have a political party nor big popular support. But he might find a stratagem, or luck may save him.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Presidential vote overshadows Tunis crisis