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Situation Assessment 20 July, 2020

The Resignation of the Fakhfakh Government: What Does this Mean for Tunisian Politics?

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh submitted his resignation to President Kais Saied on 15 July 2020, just five months after his government secured a vote of confidence from Parliament. The resignation coincides with the escalation of political tensions in the country, as accusations of corruption against the Prime Minister emerge and in the wake of government inconsistency and parliamentary fragmentation seeing the involvement of President Saied in the conflicts of the Tunisian political elite, both in governance and opposition. The country has thus been plunged into a deep political crisis.

Difficult Formation

The process of forming a new Tunisian government, following the 2019 elections, was not easy. The elections resulted in a parliamentary scene consisting of many large blocs, none of which constitute a majority. This is due to the electoral law based on proportional representation using the largest remainder method as well as the lack of responsibility shown by some parties towards the democratic process and the shifting of deputies between parties according to personal interest. Despite Ennahda topping the list of winners, its number of seats (54) did not qualify it to proceed in forming a single government, and to secure the confidence of Parliament (109 votes). The failure of the previous prime minister Habib Jemli to gain the confidence of Parliament in his government, following two months of deliberations, was a clear indication of the depth of the differences between the various blocs, and the difficulty of securing a majority within a coherent coalition capable of dealing with the social and economic crises in the country.[1]

Following Ennahda candidate Jemli’s failure to secure parliamentary confidence, President Saied charged the leader of the Democratic Bloc Party and former minister, Elyes Fakhfakh, with forming a government. Although his consultations did not take long compared to Jemli, they were marred by many tensions that almost brought them back to square one. The ongoing dispute between Fakhfakh and Ennahda regarding their vision of the structure of the government coalition, was the first obstacle. While Ennahda called for the formation of a broad coalition that includes Heart of Tunisia, which took second place in the parliamentary elections, Fakhfakh insisted on limiting the parties that supported the President in the second round of the presidential elections in late 2019, and excluding the Heart of Tunisia party, Coalition de la dignité and the Free Destourian Party. At the same time, the Democratic Current, the People's Movement, and Tahya Tounes levied a set of conditions on Fakhfakh for their participation in the government coalition. Most of these were attached to their objection to granting Ennahda ministerial portfolios, despite enjoying the largest portion of parliamentary representation.

After difficult consultations, Fakhfakh managed to form a government team of 30 ministers; half of whom were party candidates, and the other half independents. The Fakhfakh government was considered the largest coalition since the revolution in terms of the number of parties. It included the Ennahda, the Democratic Current, the People's Movement, Tahya Tounes, and the National Reform Bloc, and was marked by the participation of political and party figures from the first row. It included the Minister of Health, Abdellatif Mekki, Anti-Corruption Minister, Mohamed Abbou, and Human Rights Minister, Ayachi Hammami.[2] Parallel to the government formation process, parliamentary understandings were completely different from the government landscape that emerged. In a political paradox, both the Heart of Tunisia and the Coalition de la dignité, which were excluded from the government coalition, voted in favor of Ennahda’s candidate for the presidency of the parliament, Rached Ghannouchi, while the coalition blocs with his party in the government voted against him. And these government partner parties still believe that Ennahda should be in the opposition, despite being smaller parties. This paradox has led to the crystallization of a political scene marked by incoherence between a government coalition, which is matched by various parliamentary understandings. As a result, the government was unable, on more than one occasion, to pass the bills it proposed, lacking parliamentary support.

At the same time, some political forces, such as the Destourian Party bloc openly supporting the former dictatorial regime and opposing the revolution, have run the parliament with political regulations and demonstrative activities of no practical value, disrupting the work of Parliament with the aim of damaging its image. The parliaments of democratic countries usually have mechanisms to prevent this.

Conflict of Interest

It was clear from the start that the coalition that formed the government lacked the accord required to address the multiple crises that the country is undergoing, and prevented the realization of the economic and social reforms promised by Fakhfakh in the program that gained him parliamentary confidence. Although the Covid-19 pandemic allowed an unspoken truce between the coalition parties, conflicting factors persisted and escalated sharply over the past two months. Ennahda insisted on expanding the government coalition and including the Heart of Tunisia, while the Democratic Current, the People's Movement, and Tahya Tounes continued to evoke their clashes with Ennahda. These clashes have been translated, on more than one occasion, into bills submitted by the government itself being dropped. With the passage of a hundred days since gaining the confidence of Parliament, indications that the government will be short lived accumulated, despite the relative success it achieved in addressing and containing the health, social and economic repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, the intransigence within the Fakhfakh government did not drive, on its own, any members to announce their withdrawal or to demand his resignation, until the details of the “conflict of interest” issue leaked. On 29 June 2020, Shawky al-Tabib, head of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (an independent constitutional body), revealed the existence of suspected conflicts of interest for the Prime Minister, for having shares in companies that deal with the state commercially, in violation of Tunisian law. He confirmed that the case was raised on the basis of a notification received by the commission, and that Fakhfakh is suspected of corruption and the exploitation of information for illicit profiteering. Once uncovered, the case shocked the ruling coalition and parliamentary blocs. Ennahda, the Tunisian Heart Party and the Coalition de la dignité were quick to demand an investigation, calling for Fakhfakh to resign if proven guilty, while the positions of the Democratic Movement, the People's Movement and the Tahya Tounes movement ranged between an implicit defense of the prime minister and acceptance of an investigation into the charges against him. Despite the differences between the components of the government coalition and the parliamentary blocs regarding their positions on the conflict of interest issue, it was agreed that a parliamentary investigation committee headed by the opposition (the Heart of Tunisia Party) and an administrative investigation committee would be formed. They were asked to submit two reports to the government and parliament after investigating the case.

The case, from which the Anti-Corruption Commission estimated that Fakhfakh gained more than USD 15.6, represented a strong pressure card in the hands of Ennahda, and with it the Heart of Tunisia and the Coalition de la dignité, to advance the option of dropping Fakhfakh and his coalition, and forming a new government. Ennahda’s Shura Council rushed to assign Ghannouchi to hold consultations with the President of the Republic, parties and organizations to agree on an alternative government.[3]

Resignation and Dismissals

In the event of the decision of Ennahda’s Shura Council calling for an alternative government, President Saied, in the presence of Fakhfakh and Noureddine Taboubi, Secretary-General of the Tunisian General Labour Union, said that he would “not accept any consultations concerning the formation of a new government as long as the current government is present and has full powers.” He stated that “consultations can only take place if the Prime Minister submits his resignation or Parliament votes for a vote of no confidence.”[4] Although President Saeid's position seemed based on constitutional requirements, his tone suggests his bias towards Fakhfakh, and indicates a decline in the relationship between the president and Ennahda, with alternative views of possible exits from the current political stalemate.

In conjunction with the disagreement between the president and Ennahda over the fate of Fakhfakh’s government, a war of regulations broke out between the parliamentary blocs in relation to the line-ups produced by the reactions to the “conflict of interests” debacle. Seventy-three deputies from the blocs composed of the People's Movement, the Democratic Current, and Tahya Tounes and some independents, who form the parliamentary belt supporting Fakhfakh, signed a petition to withdraw confidence from Ghannouchi — the Speaker of Parliament.[5] Meanwhile 105 deputies, most of them from Ennahda, Heart of Tunisia and the Coalition de la dignité, submitted a proposal of no-confidence in the Fakhfakh government.[6] It seemed, through statistical and political data, that the proposal of no confidence in the government carry more weight than the proposal of no confidence in Ghannouchi, if passed through the general parliamentary session.

Apparently anticipating the inevitability of the no confidence vote in Fakhfakh, which would hand bargaining chips to Ennahda and snatching the initial step from the President himself, on 16 July 2020, Saied called Ghannouchi, Fakhfakh and Taboubi, to Carthage Palace, and announced that he had received Fakhfakh’s resignation and would initiate consultations with blocs, coalitions, and parties to name a new prime minister.[7]

Fakhfakh’s resignation did not signal the end of the interactions between the various parties. A constitutional controversy erupted around dealing with the new scene regarding the primacy of the no-confidence vote in Fakhfakh over the announcement of the resignation, and whether the first abolished the second and the constitutional requirements that give the first party (Ennahda) the right to name the new prime minister in the event of a no confidence vote. Meanwhile this right passes to the President of the Republic in the event of a resignation. In the context of the resignations, Fakhfakh exempted all Ennahda ministers from their duties. This has not proved a new debate about the constitutionality of dismissing ministers who are members of an independent government whose tasks are limited to conducting business. Nor has it looked for a solution to political tensions reaching levels that would negatively affect the course of the public interest, at a time when the country has yet to permanently neutralise the risks and economic and social repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Conclusion

With the resignation of the Prime Minister, the curtain falls on both the broadest and shortest coalition experience since 2011 and a new page in Tunisian politics turns. Although the interactions that marked the relationship of the parties participating in the coalition and formed various parliamentary alliances limited the effectiveness of government performance and prevented the passage of a number of bills, the conflict of interests and the reactions to it were a severe blow that impeded every endeavour to restore and extend the coalition. With signs of the seriousness of the charges against Fakhfakh, becoming a criminal case, in the coming days attention will turn to the Carthage Palace to reveal the personality that President Kais Saied will assign to form the new government. But the problem of the Tunisian democratic system will not be solved if political actors, especially those committed to this system, do not show a greater responsibility to consolidate the democratic system to work above partisan rivalries. Nor can it work if populism and other forces that seek to harm democracy are not addressed.

[1] “Jemli Fails to Secure a Vote of Confidence: What Next for Tunisia?” Situation Assessment, The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 19/1/2019, accessed on 16/7/2020 at: https://bit.ly/32BOq61.

[2] “New Challenges Ahead for the Fakhfakh Government,” Situation Assessment, The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 24/2/2020, accessed on 16/7/2020 at: https://bit.ly/3fGQddT.

[3] Statement of the 41st session of Ennahda’s Shura Council, Ennahda Website, 13/7/2020, accessed on 18/7/2020 at: https://bit.ly/2CJ37to.

[4] Tunisian Presidency Page, Facebook, 13/7/2020, accessed on 18/7/2020, at: https://bit.ly/2OzFbuT.

[5] “Official: Ghannouchi’s No-Confidence Vote Proposed,” Mosaic FM, 16/7/2020, accessed on 18/7/2020, at: https://bit.ly/32su7YV.

[6] See: “Fakhfakh Petition Submitted with 105 Signatures”, Mosaic FM, 15/7/2020, accessed on 18/7/2020, at: https://bit.ly/2OD3Eji.

[7] Tunisian Presidency Page, Facebook, 15/7/2020, accessed on 18/7/2020, at: https://bit.ly/3ewzI2B.