New cabinet suggests democratic consolidation and fragmentation in Tunisia

Published in North Africa

By Afro-Middle East Centre

tunisia cabinetTunisia’s parliament last week ratified the cabinet of the prime minister, Habib Essid, in a sign of the country’s preference for consensus building. It points to a desire for democratic consolidation, but could portend trouble for, and even fragmentation of, the ruling Nidaa Tounes party.

The cabinet comprises four parties, including the three largest parties in the legislature, Nidaa Tounes (with eighty-six seats), Ennahda (sixty-nine seats) and the Free Patriotic Union (sixteen seats). The ratification of the cabinet was a formality and over seventy-five per cent of voting parliamentarians (166 out of 204) endorsed its formation. This augurs well for Tunisians; the vast economic and security challenges the country faces requires the adoption of difficult measures, supported by a large constituency. Key amongst these is a reduction in subsidies, especially on fuel, which benefit mostly the middle and upper classes; and combating militancy without disillusioning religious Tunisians.

The cabinet formation was not without difficulty, however. The cabinet Essid announced in January was invalidated even before it was voted on. Most opposition parties criticised its lack of inclusiveness and announced their intentions to oppose it, resulting in intense political bargaining that led to a cabinet that included Nidaa Tounes, Ennahda, the Free Patriotic Union, and Afek Tounes (with eight seats). Their combined 179 seats ensured that most constituencies were represented and that the cabinet would be ratified by the legislature.

The Islamist Ennahda party, despite having won the second highest number of seats, was given one ministry (employment) and three secretaries of state; the Free Patriotic Union got three ministries and one secretary; Afek Tounes was rewarded with three ministries; and Nidaa Tounes members and independents close to it were given the other cabinet positions.

Although this representation is skewed – Afek Tounes, for example, has three ministries even though it has only eight parliamentary seats, Ennahda has accepted the deal for pragmatic reasons. It feared that the president, and Nidaa Tounes head, Beji Caid Essebsi might reverse some of the gains won in the 2011 uprising and could revive a crackdown on Islamists as it was during the reign of the former dictator Zineddine Ben Ali, especially since Nidaa was formed in opposition to Ennahda’s Islamism, and Essebsi has often articulated his anti-Islamist sentiments. The single cabinet seat allows Ennahda a say in the running of the country and ensures it is a government insider.

A further small victory of the political bargaining for Ennahda was that it led to the removal of Khadija Cherif and Laarousi Mizouri, two ‘culture warriors’ with an extreme hatred toward Islamic practices, and who had vociferously opposed the wearing of the headscarf from cabinet. Their remaining in the cabinet would have been unacceptable to Ennahda’s voters. In addition, the crucial interior, justice, and defence ministries are now all headed by independents, and the interior minister, Mohamed Najem Gharsalli, is regarded as being sympathetic to the Islamists. This is significant in light of the fact that Tunisia’s most influential state organ is the interior ministry, which is more powerful than the country’s military. It was the main institution used by Ben Ali to suppress dissent and eradicate the opposition, especially Islamists in Ennahda.

The inclusion of Ennahda in the cabinet could, however, lead to a break-up of the ruling Nidaa Tounes, a fragile coalition held together by opposition to Islamists and consisting of ‘Destourians’ who follow the secular modernism of former president Habib Bourguiba, leftists, trade unionists, and former Ben Ali party officials from the former ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RDC). Including Ennahda in a governing coalition is thus contrary to the party’s principle objective. Indeed, of the eight parliamentarians who abstained from the 5 February ratification vote two were Nidaa executive board members. Even the party’s secretary- general and now foreign minister, Taieb Baccouche, expressed opposition to Ennahda’s inclusion, arguing that in democracies it was ‘normal’ for the largest party to rule and the second largest to form the main opposition.

Fissures within Nidaa Tounes had already begun to arise before the election when concerns were raised that RDC members held disproportional influence on the party’s stances. Nidaa has not yet organised a national congress. Unhappiness was exacerbated by Essebsi’s appointing Essid, a relative independent, as prime minister. Many had felt that the prime minister should be a party person, specifically Baccouche. Party heavyweights openly criticised Essebsi’s advisors, warning of potential splits.

A split might not be bad for governance in Tunisia. It will allow politics to be contested on the basis of performance rather than ideology, which is currently pervasive and is the major cause of increased polarisation.

Last modified on Monday, 25 May 2015 11:00

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