Habib Jemli, the Prime Minister-designate nominated by the Ennahdha Movement, has failed to win Parliament’s confidence for his proposed government, which he presented on January 10, 2020. This serious setback will have an impact on the political map and on the position of the Ennahdha Movement, which stands isolated within Tunisian politics.

This paper will analyze the reasons behind the rejection and will look at potential scenarios for Tunisian politics in the near future.

Jemli’s government: Why was it rejected?

Although the Tunisian Constitution stipulates that the party that comes first in the parliamentary elections is entitled to form the government, the Ennahdha Movement chose an independent figure — albeit one close to the Movement — as prime minister. This was one of the key conditions for winning the support of the other political parties. As the Ennahdha Movement holds only 52 seats in Parliament, it was forced to form alliances with other political powers. Its preference was to ally itself with liberal and left-wing parties belonging to the “revolutionary wing” of Tunisian politics, rather than the constitutional wing and the Qalb Tounes party.

The Movement’s first attempt to form a coalition government with parties from the “revolutionary wing” failed, however, despite the efforts of Prime Minister-designate Habib Jemli to bring the parties together and to fulfil demands regarding who should hold certain key ministerial positions. It appeared, at first, that Jemli had managed to achieve rapprochement between the Ennahdha Movement and three main parliamentary blocs, namely the Democratic Current, the People’s Movement, and the Tahya Tounes party, which would have given his coalition government a comfortable parliamentary majority. His attempt failed, however, and the three blocs have distanced themselves from the declared consensus.

There are two main reasons for this failure: the Ennahdha Movement tried to retain a position of influence within the government by appointing its members to several sensitive ministerial positions requested by other parties; and Jemli failed to reconcile the various conflicting demands made by the parties with which he was trying to form a government.

As the deadline for forming the government was approaching, Jemli proposed a government of national, independent, non-partisan figures and tried to gain Parliament’s approval. He argued that it was the only possible option, given the divided nature of the political scene and the difficulty of achieving consensus between the political groups. However, his proposed government, which was presented to Parliament on January 10, won only 72 votes, primarily from among the members of the Ennahdha Movement and the Karama coalition. The number of votes against the proposal was 132, representing the majority of the parties, including Qalb Tounes, Tahya Tounes, the People’s Movement, the Democratic Current, the Free Constitutional Party, and the Reform Front. Three members abstained. The proposed coalition government was therefore rejected.

The proposed independent government was rejected for two main reasons: several of the proposed government members are political Islamists, meaning that they are close to the Ennahdha Movement; and several others are known to be involved in corruption, meaning that they are unqualified to carry out the necessary fundamental reforms.

The failure to win parliamentary support for the proposed government is a serious blow to the Ennahdha Movement, which, having been a major player in all areas of Tunisian politics since the 2011 revolution, failed to form the alliances required to establish a coalition government.

Possible scenarios

According to article 89 of the Tunisian Constitution, the President shall, within 10 days, hold talks with the parliamentary blocs to appoint a person deemed capable of forming a government that has the confidence of the House of Representatives. The government must then be formed within a month. This deadline may be extended only once. If this period lapses without the formation of the government, new legislative elections may be held within a minimum of 45 days and a maximum of 90 days.

President Kais Saied wrote to the heads of the parliamentary blocs and groups inviting them to participate in such consultations in order to discuss candidates deemed capable of forming the government. Although it is too early to make any clear predictions, there are four possible scenarios for the formation of the future government:

  1. Expanded national unity government: Ennahdha has put forward this option as a way of resolving the current crisis and overcoming the difficulty of reaching any sort of political consensus among the parliamentary groups. While several parties have reservations about this proposal, which they see as an attempt by Ennahdha to sidestep the setbacks in its efforts to form a government, various political forces may support the proposal if it is adopted by President Saied, as he has a strong relationship with groups across the political spectrum and is seen as capable of overseeing the formation of a balanced coalition government not led by the Ennahdha Movement. Although the President of the Republic does not have strong executive powers under the Tunisian Constitution, and although President Saied does not have a party base, Saied’s high success rate in the second round of the presidential elections, in which he won 76% of the vote, entitles him to play a central political role. Consequently, some political groups have called for the current parliamentary government to be replaced by a presidential government, in which the president would be responsible for playing a guiding, supervisory role and maintaining a balance within politics. If President Saied is indeed keen to carry out fundamental constitutional reform that changes the nature of the political system, then the establishment of a broad coalition government may enable him to achieve some of his political ambitions to establish an executive role for the president beyond the powers conferred on the position under the current Constitution.
  2. Alternative coalition to that proposed by the Ennahdha Movement: The Qalb Tounes party has proposed establishing a broad parliamentary coalition under the name “National Salvation Front”, comprising 90 of the 217 members of parliament from the People’s Movement, Tahya Tounes, the Reform Front, and the Future Tunisia Movement. As well as being a fragile coalition, owing to the differing interests of its members, it would also be unlikely to obtain the parliamentary majority required to form a government (109 members of parliament). Nabil Karoui, head of the Qalb Tounes party, has therefore called for the formation of a “national salvation” government under the president, which makes the first scenario all the more likely.
  3. Independent technocratic government without party quotas, led by a figure of national accord: The Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce, and Handicraft made this proposal as a solution to the current political crisis, given the deteriorating economic and social conditions. This scenario is very unlikely, as the main political forces object to it.
  4. New legislative elections: This outcome is quite likely, owing to the difficulty of achieving the most basic level of agreement required to form a coalition government, given the lack of shared ground among the parliamentary groups. Although most political forces, especially the smaller groups, fear that this scenario may reduce their electoral gains, it may not necessarily lead to a qualitative change in the political balance; in such case, the political crisis is likely to rage on and will continue to have a negative impact on social conditions.

Conclusion

The struggle to form the government appears to provide a platform for both strengthening and undermining relationships between the political forces in Tunisia. The formation of a government under a presidential system seems ever more likely, which suggests that the first scenario may eventually come to pass. Given the legal differences between a presidential system and a parliamentary system and given the political congestion in the country, debate continues to rage regarding the future of the next government, its composition, and the legal and political pillars on which it should be based.

President Saied chose to launch consultations to appoint the prime minister in accordance with article 89 of the Constitution, which permits the President to hold consultations with parties, coalitions, and parliamentary blocs with the aim of appointing the “most capable” person as prime minister within ten days. According to the Constitution, the prime minister is then tasked with forming a government within the space of a month. However, some experts in constitutional law argue that, during such consultations, it is not possible for the President of the Republic to “simply choose a person and force the parties to accept that choice. Rather, the President must take various factors into account and must intensify consultations in order to win the confidence of the House of Representatives.” In the same context, those experts argue that the Tunisian Constitution “has been silenced in cases where the government was not formed by the deadline and did not receive the confidence of the House of Representatives. In those cases, the Constitution was taken into account only with regard to the President’s right to dissolve Parliament four months after it was established, in the event that Parliament has not granted its confidence to the government. This is not a mechanism, nor is the President obliged to dissolve Parliament. The President is therefore able to interpret the Constitution as he desires and assign another person as prime minister. Youssef Chahed will continue to run the current government until a new government is formed.”

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