Public debt, populism and protests as Tunisia faces crisis

TUNIS (Reuters) – The collapse of Tunisia’s shortest-lived government since its 2011 revolution has plunged its young democracy into a new crisis after successive failures by elected leaders to turn political freedom into economic success.

Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh’s coalition had only taken office in February after months of political wrangling in the deeply fragmented parliament formed by last year’s election.

His resignation on Wednesday means there will be a new round of talks to try to form a government and, if that fails, another election just as the country demands clear leadership to handle the global pandemic and its economic fallout.

For Tunisia, widely seen as the sole comparative success story of the “Arab Spring” it triggered nine years ago with the revolution that introduced democracy, the stakes could hardly be higher.

“Enough is enough,” said Samia ben Youssef, a teacher out shopping at a street market in the Ettahrir district of Tunis.

“At a time when people are suffering from a crisis, when coronavirus is spreading around the world, they let us face our destiny alone,” she added.

Already, in the impoverished southern towns where the rising flared in 2011, a fresh wave of protesters are demanding jobs and more government aid, while the government said last week it wanted to delay debt repayments to four donor countries.

On Thursday some of these protesters started blocking Tunisia’s modest oil exports by closing a pumping station, a tactic that has already damaged the phosphate industry.

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Against this fraught backdrop, Tunisia faces a reckoning with its awkward democratic model, a mix of parliamentary and presidential systems but without a constitutional court, which was intended to resolve disputes but has not yet been set up.

With many leading politicians, including the president, wanting to change the system, the party that did best in a recent opinion poll is the one that champions the old, pre-revolution, autocracy.

“My fear is we are entering an era of turbulence and without having enough political force to face it … It’s a very gloomy scenario,” said Youssef Cherif, a political analyst.

POLARISATION

Politicians now have until late August to form a new government with majority support in parliament, but will struggle to bridge the divisions that weakened Fakhfakh’s coalition.

The largest party is the moderate Islamist Ennahda, the only constant presence in Tunisian politics since the revolution as numerous other parties rapidly came and went. But it has only a quarter of the seats and its leader, Rached Ghannouchi, faces a vote of confidence as parliament speaker.

Tunisia’s biggest political rift is over fiscal policy. Ennahda has tended to stand with parties that favour reforms sought by donors to curb spending and public debt.

President Kais Saied appears to stand on the other side of that division, Cherif said, along with Arab nationalist parties and the other major player in Tunisian politics, a powerful labour union.

Talks have already started with the International Monetary Fund over a new loan programme, but it has previously wanted tough economic reforms that much of parliament opposes.

In parliament on Thursday the tense political atmosphere was encapsulated by Abir Moussi and her populist Destouri party, which voices support for the ousted autocracy of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who died in exile last year.

They seized the speaker’s chair to stop Ghannouchi sitting there, raising the spectre of renewed tension between Islamists and secularists and aggravating the risk of street confrontations between their supporters.

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