Following its slim victory in Tunisia’s parliamentary elections in October, the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party has nominated Habib Jemli, a little-known former minister, as prime minister, joining the appointment of party leader Rachid Al-Ghannouchi as speaker of the country’s parliament.
Jemli, 60, a former junior agriculture minister in the first Ennahda government in 2011, now has two months to form a coalition government. If he fails to do so, Tunisia’s newly elected President Kais Saied can name another candidate.
However, faced with a fractured parliament, Jemli’s task will be challenging. Ennahda won the largest number of seats in the October elections, but still only has 52 seats, down from the previous 69, in the 217-seat assembly. The second-largest parliamentary bloc of the newly founded Qalb Tunisia (Heart of Tunisia) Party has 38 seats.
Ennahda leader Rachid Al-Ghannouchi, himself elected parliamentary speaker last Wednesday, handed the party’s nomination of Jemli as the country’s new prime minister to Saied on Friday.
In a video posted on the Tunisian presidency’s Facebook page Jemli, who describes himself as an independent, said cabinet members would be selected based on the basis of their competence and integrity “regardless of political affiliation.”
Any new government will need the support of at least two other parties to command even a minimum parliamentary majority of the 109 seats needed to pass legislation.
Ennahda’s rival Heart of Tunisia Party supported Ennahda’s nomination of Al-Ghannouchi as parliamentary speaker, indicating a possible repeat for Jemli’s efforts to form a government. Observers say a coalition government is likely to pursue the tough economic reforms associated with former prime minister Youssef Chahid, which led to harsh criticisms and allegations that he was failing to address the country’s economic woes amid rising unemployment rates.
Chahid’s cabinet focused on spending cuts backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to bring down Tunisia’s hefty budget deficit and bring public debt under control, while raising spending on security to woo back foreign tourists to the country.
The upcoming negotiations to form a new government will be a key test for Ennahda, banned until the ouster of former president Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali in the 2011 popular uprising that triggered the so-called Arab Spring. For many, Tunisia remains the only success story of the Arab uprisings, having been able to hold elections that many have hailed as free and transparent.
Last month’s presidential and parliamentary election results saw the rejection of the former establishment in Tunisia with the traditional parties voted out of office. Ennahda lost the presidential elections, and while it came first in the parliamentary elections it secured only a narrow victory and the lowest number of seats in its post-2011 history.
“I hope this will be a new start. After we have completed the democratic transition, the focus will be on development, fighting corruption and tackling unemployment and high prices,” Al-Ghannouchi said on Friday.
As Tunisia’s new MPs took their oaths of office on Wednesday morning, two groups of demonstrators stood outside the parliament building demanding justice for those killed during the 2011 uprising.
In the event of the likely Ennahda-Heart of Tunisia coalition, both parties will still need to strike a deal with smaller parties or individual MPs to get the minimum 109 votes needed to pass parliamentary legislation. But a power-sharing deal will be risky with Nabil Karoui, Heart of Tunisia’s leader, who faces charges of tax evasion and money laundering that could undermine Ennahda’s vow of fighting corruption.
On Monday, Al-Ghannouchi said the Heart of Tunisia Party would not be part of a coalition government. It wanted to appoint independent personalities, instead of party members, to head ministries like the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Interior, he said.
He pointed out that Jemli, tasked to select members of the new government, was “politically independent, sincere, and efficient” and added that “the government positions he has previously occupied testify to his trustworthiness in assuming the new responsibility.”
If Jemli succeeds in forming a new government, the Ennahda Party will likely be held responsible for further economic hardships, however. This could then backfire and damage the party’s shrinking popularity and support base.
The future government will be working with newly elected president Kais Saied, a constitutional law professor who has vowed to change the governing system in Tunisia.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.