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Tunisia's New Government Takes Shape

The most successful parties in Tunisia’s elections are set to form a coalition, but this new government will face the toughest of challenges.
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Likely lads: Hamadi Jebali (Al-Nahda; Prime Minister), Moncef Marzouki (CPR; President), Mustafa Ben Jafar (Ettakatol; President of the Constituent Assembly)

Tunis, Tunisia: 

The set-up of Tunisia’s next government should be clear by next Tuesday – November 22 – when the new Constituent Assembly meets for the first time following the October 23 elections.  The government will almost certainly be a coalition led by the moderate Islamist party Al-Nahda, who bring their 89 seats, supported by two centre-left parties, Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol, who won 29 and 20 seats respectively. Together the three parties have a healthy majority with 138 of the assembly’s 217 seats.

Whilst the putative coalition does not yet have an agenda for government and the dishing out of positions is still under negotiation, it will present itself as a government of good values. Many analysts, including those linked to CPR and Ettakatol, see al-Nahda’s strong victory stemming from their perception as a party with good, traditional (read non-Ben Ali) values.

The Constituent Assembly will effectively set its own rules for its scope and length of existence. Consequently, the three parties that will dominate it are desperate to get their men – and it is overwhelmingly men – into the top positions to influence the country’s direction in the lead up to inevitable further elections for president and a new parliament in either late 2012 or some point in mid-2013.

Who gets what?

Al-Nahda, as the leading party, will nominate the prime minister - Hamadi Jebali, a former political prisoner who spent over a decade in solitary confinement, is predicted to take office. Party founder Rached Ghannouchi will continue in his role as “intellectual leader” of the party, but is unlikely to hold any public office.

Observers, especially those who are secular and uncomfortable about Al-Nahda playing a leading role in the country’s political future, have been looking for any signs of “double talk” by the outwardly moderate party. Last Monday provided such an occasion, when Jebali announced to a rally of political supporters his hopes for the beginning of a 6th Caliphate, causing outrage among large sections of the population who are firmly set against the entering of religion into political or public life.

Secular minded Tunisians probably have nothing to fear for now. Al-Nahda has been extremely politically astute since registering as a party on March 1 of this year. They are aware that many of their voters support them for their anti-corruption platform and appearance as trustworthy and credible, not their version of political Islam. Tensions within the party executive and membership between more reformist and more hard-line elements may erupt as the leadership attempts to straddle the divide between their membership and the rest of the country. However, any projection is difficult as too little is known yet about the internal structures of a party that was banned until the January 14 revolution.

CPR so far seems to be doing well out of the three party negotiations. Moncef Marzouki, the party’s president, looks set to become president of the republic. Al-Nahda had reportedly been pushing for current interim prime minister Beji Caid el Sebsi to move into the presidential office, but have agreed with the decision to install Marzouki. The United States were broadly supportive of Sebsi candidature. Sebsi is a generally popular avuncular figure whose rhetorical style is reminiscent of independence leader Habib Bourguiba, in whose government Sebsi served in various roles. Ettakatol and CPR now appear to support Sebsi taking on some foreign role, possibly as foreign minister, although this is currently still just speculation.

CPR have acted as al-Nahda’s PR agent towards secular minded Tunisians, playing down Jebali’s caliphate comments, and playing up points of agreement between the secular and Islamist parties. This is no surprise seeing as CPR are about to go into government with al-Nahda, but its roots may lie elsewhere. Three of CPRs four man executive were formerly in Islamist opposition parties. Political analyst Raoudha Ben Othman told Think Africa Press that this body makes the real decisions in the party, while Marzouki acts as the public face. This does not suggest a conspiracy, but a level of trust and shared history between the upper echelons of CPR and al-Nahda, despite their stated ideological differences.

Ettakatol will be the junior party in the coalition, although it has tried unsuccessfully to negotiate itself a larger role. Their main aim was to get party leader and former interim health minister Mustapha Ben Jafar inserted as president. They had agreed with the other two parties for enhanced powers for the president, but now their man has lost out for that office this consensus may ebb away.

After a provisional agreement between al-Nahda and CPR for Marzouki to be president became public earlier this week, Ettakatol temporarily withdrew from coalition negotiations. They claimed this was in protest to Jebali’s caliphate comments, but more likely it was a bargaining chip to assure Jafar would still receive a senior role. Now it is likely that Jafar will become President of the Constituent Assembly, talks have continued.

What opposition?

There is a disparity between the percentage of the population that oppose al-Nahda’s dominance and parliamentary opposition to it in the national assembly. This latter opposition will struggle to oppose the three party coalition. The four largest opposition parties only have 52 seats and they don’t make for natural bedfellows.

The largest opposition party, although they are technically an independent list not a party, is Aridha Chaabia. After its surprise third place finish, suspicions about the party have multiplied. Some have seen them as an Islamist front, looking to ally themselves with al-Nahda, while others accuse them of being packed members of Ben Ali’s party, the RCD. The latter accusation may have more truth with former RCD members able to run under this banner, but the wholesale conspiracies are more a symptom of surprise at their success and lack of knowledge about the party and its controversial leader Hachmi Hamdi.

Aridha Chaabia’s ability to function as an united opposition has been undermined by threats from its MPs to quit the list, citing Hamdi’s leadership as their main concern. Indeed, other parties have shunned them up till now, but overtures are starting to be made to list MPs but not Hamdi, who appears to be being undermined. Nonetheless, he still plans to run for president in the future.

The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) came a disappointing fifth in the October polls. This has been put down to their reported attempt to form a coalition government on January 13, the day before Ben Ali was ousted, and their subsequent high profile campaigning before an election timetable had been created. It wants Ettakatol to shun the coalition and join them in opposition. The PDP are the secular party most vocal in their opposition to al-Nahda. It claims that the Islamist party uses a “double discourse”, using Jebali’s caliphate comments as proof.

Opposition to a centre-right (the Tunisian spectrum runs along a religious-secular line from right to left) government will be difficult for a left which many feel is discredited and intellectually bankrupt. Raoudha Ben Othman feels that they have failed because “they imported both France’s problems and solutions to those problems.”

Organised extra-parliamentary opposition and interest groups, as opposed to mass street opposition, will struggle to represent an independent voice in the new political arena. The UGGT trade union federation, professional associations and other lobby groups were largely co-opted by the RCD machinery during Ben Ali’s administration. Now these groups are struggling to be independent from new parties when lobbying for their members’ interests to be represented in the new constitution. Of particular concern are the burgeoning women’s movements which are split along Islamic-Secular lines. In order to lobby for the most gender-sensitive constitution possible, these groups will need to put aside their differences and form a united front.

What will the coalition actually do?

There is a general confusion about the coming government’s purpose. Some Tunisians feel that the role of the Constituent Assembly is to write the next constitution and little else. Others want to see a fuller government program addressing the country’s needs and the root causes of the revolution.

The three political parties about to form a government appear to favour the latter interpretation. However, wrangling over who gets what department and position have taken priority over questions of policy. Here there are broad areas of agreement in an analysis of what is wrong and what is wanted, without much of a shared understanding of how to practically address the issues.

While politicians may be interested in constitutional questions of the status of women, the role of religion, decentralisation of power after two decades of intense Ben Ali centralism, delineating the roles of government and the right and duties of the citizen and the state, more pressing issues of economic stagnation, regional inequality, and unemployment have taken priority. Abdellatif Abid, a member of Ettakatol’s political bureau, told Think Africa Press that unemployment is like a “bomb about to explode” with the possibility of “another revolution in areas of high unemployment”.

The debate between the three partners on how to solve these pressing issues will begin in earnest once a final agreement on government personnel is reached.

Interim Prime Minister Sebsi laid out the problems to the African Media Leaders Forum, which met in Tunis last week. He said that 14 out of 24 governorates are poor and need infrastructure to create jobs. He stated that there are 700,000 unemployed Tunisians, 200,000 of whom are graduates.

Tackling regional inequality has been a big theme for Ettakatol since the revolution. They too are calling for large-scale infrastructure spending in poorer parts of the country to stimulate growth, employment and opportunities. To fund this stimulus, they are hoping that EU countries and other foreign creditors will lower the interest rate payable on Tunisian debt. It remains to be seen whether European states, dealing with their own debt crises, will be prepared to lower Tunisia’s debt repayments. Ettakatol’s other employment policy, which will probably make it into the three-party programme is to request the EU issue 13,000 work visas for Tunisians. Ben Judah, a policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations, told Think Africa Press that “this fits with what EU leaders have said they would offer to these countries - more mobility”.

These policies alone are unlikely to fix Tunisia’s economy. On Wednesday, the Central Bank of Tunisia called the economic situation “alarming”, with a budget deficit standing at 5.7% of GDP. Without international support, the scope for action on the part of Tunisia’s new government may be limited. Indeed, things could get worse if the large levels of bad private debt, analysed in Beatrice Hibou’s The Force of Obedience, require state intervention.

This lack of policy-thinking, hidden debts, and worsening economic climate will make the new government’s task extremely challenging. And they are setting themselves high targets. As Abid told Think Africa Press “if the government can’t fix unemployment then the revolution has failed."

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