Race to stabilise Tunisian government as Covid-19 second wave looms

Elyes Fakhfakh resigned as prime minister on Wednesday, but filling his post will be difficult in a divided parliament

epa08547848 (FILE) - Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh speaks during a presidential plenary session to assess the first hundred days of government at the Assembly of the People's Representatives (ARP) in Tunis, Tunisia, 25 June 2020 (reissued 15 July 2020). According to media reports, Elyes Fakfakh resigned following alleged conflict of interest scandal.  EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA

Tunisia took a further lurch into the unknown last night with the resignation of prime minister Elyes Fakhfakh narrowly before the passage of a vote of no-confidence in his leadership.

Mr Fakhfakh will now head a caretaker government until the president, Kais Saied names his successor within one month. The prime minister-designate will then have until August 26 to form a new government that can command a majority within a fractious parliament or risk tipping the country into new legislative elections.

The death knell for Mr Fakhfakh’s career was sounded on Wednesday with the decision by self-styled ‘Muslim democrats’, Ennahda to withdraw their confidence in his government.

The party claimed Mr Fakhfakh had retained his interests in companies that had profited from government contracts, an accusation he denies.

Seeking to pre-empt the result of that vote, Mr Fakhfakh resigned before it could be passed, subsequently dismissing all of Ennahda’s ministers within government, the legality of which has been questioned.

Within Tunis, many see Mr Fakhfakh’s resignation as the latest example of a parliament that continues to place its own interests above those of the country.

“I think it is a matter of settling scores between Fakhfakh and the other parties, especially Ennahda," 26-year-old Manel Azouz, a professional from Ben Arous, near Tunis, said. “It is evident to all Tunisian people and the world that the parliament is a joke and most of its members are only power hungry with no intentions to lead the country forward economically and socially.”

The challenge now facing Tunisia's president is not to be underestimated. Last year’s legislative elections produced no clear winner, with only Ennahda gaining a plurality of the votes cast.

With the remaining votes split across a diverse range of politicians and parties, Mr Saied must select a candidate not only able to command a majority, but one who can steer the country through a potential second wave of Covid-19 and negotiate with international donors, such as the International Monetary Fund, upon which Tunisia depends.

"The timing is very bad," Youssef Cherif, the head of the Columbia Centre in Tunis told The National. "Tunisia has just come out of the first wave of Covid-19, so they have a bit of time to play this game.

However, they have a potential second wave on the horizon, plus the ongoing economic crisis to deal with.”

While Tunisia has won plaudits for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, it remains fated to experience the brunt of the global economic downturn. Joblessness, long a cause of social unrest in Tunisia, is slated to rise from 15 per cent to 21.6 per cent by the year’s end.

Poverty, likewise, is forecast to increase to 19.2 per cent, according to a joint survey by the United Nations Development Programme and the Tunisian government. Neither stand to be helped by further political deadlock.

Nevertheless, observers are hopeful that a second election could still be avoided. With the exception of the Free Destourian Party, which hearkens back to the pre-revolutionary regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the majority of Tunisia’s politicians are aware of their waning popularity within the country and are unlikely to be willing to subject themselves to a further vote.

Adding to the parliament’s woes is the proposed vote of censure for "exceeding his prerogatives" against the speaker of the house and Ennahda co-founder, Rashid Ghannouchi, which stands to undermine his leadership both within the parliament and potentially his own party.

“While it looks like we might be heading towards another election, I’m hopeful that an agreement will be reached before that," Mr Cherif said. "Obviously, the politicians have concerns of their own, but there’s also the potential for a second wave of Covid-19, which might fall in the middle of any new election."