Hichem Mechichi the Tunisia’s Prime Minister-designate, has announced his proposals for a new government of technocrats a day before the constitutionally mandated deadline of August 25.
Mr Mechichi’s proposals must now secure the approval of a fractured and disunited Parliament, or risk tipping the country into new elections.
The third person to hold the post since the general election in October last year, he was given the task by President Kais Saied in late July to form a new government after his predecessor, Elyes Fakhfakh, resigned following corruption allegations.
Mr Mechichi proposes to exclude politicians from his government to address Tunisia’s economic challenges and unemployment.
Mr Saied, a former law professor, has also been consistently critical of the political parties’ role within government.
Shortly after midnight, Mr Mechichi announced a trimmed down government of 25 ministers and three secretaries of state, including eight women.
As had been anticipated, the former chief executive of Tunisia’s ABC Bank, Ali Kooli, is nominated to take charge of the ministry of economy, finance and investment.
Other prominent ministerial suggestions include law professor Ibrahim Bartaji who has been nominated for the defence portfolio, and career diplomat Othman Jerand as Minister of Foreign Affairs, a position he previously held.
Mr Mechichi’s government will need a vote of confidence by Tuesday or the country may be forced into new elections.
The exclusion of political parties is proving divisive.
The country’s largest party, Ennahda, said on Sunday that pending confirmation of its governing Shura Council, it would not support a technocratic government.
Rached Ghannouchi, the Ennahda leader and parliamentary Speaker, criticised the decision saying that it was undemocratic.
On Sunday night Ennahda was joined by many of Tunisia’s political blocs, with early indications suggesting most preferred elections to a technocratic government.
Late on Sunday night, the Democratic Current, which commands 38 seats in Parliament, announced its decision not to support any proposed government.
While some parties may vote to support Mr Mechichi’s proposals, its ability to maintain that confidence is not assured.
Youssef Cherif, head of the Columbia Global Centre in Tunis, said that the new government could count on the support of the president and the public sector, including the country’s powerful general trade union, the UGTT.
But without the backing of any political party “it will face tremendous challenges in Parliament”.
“In Tunisia, political parties are not that strong, apart from Ennahda,” Mr Cherif said.
But he said Ennahda could be a strong opposition force, in Parliament and on the streets, “if it feels alienated and attacked”.
In such a parliament, the new government could find it tough to pass legislation that addresses some of the country’s long-standing difficulties, Mr Cherif said.
“Of course, the government would put the blame on the political parties if things don’t work but that may transform it into a dictatorial institution,” he said.
“I think that the economic situation is so difficult that people won’t differentiate between government and political party. They are all politicians after all.”
Forcing new elections would be risky for parties, who could appear to be placing their own interests ahead of the country.
The coronavirus has worsened Tunisia’s unemployment, which was already at about 15 per cent before the pandemic, and as high as 30 per cent in some areas.
The pandemic has also caused a loss of tourism revenue, with the economy shrinking by 21.6 per cent in the second quarter compared to last year.
Unrest has become common over declining living standards, access to resources such as drinking water, and the continued decline of public services.
Ennahda, which has been a constant in Tunisia’s successive governments since 2011, risks having its share of the vote decrease even further.
An August 14 poll by Sigma Conseil showed Ennahda fell to second place in public support, behind the surging Free Destourian Party, which polled 14 points clear at 35.8 per cent.
Trust in Mr Ghannouchi, who narrowly survived a vote of confidence in July, also seems to be in decline.
In the same poll, the party founder was recorded as the least trusted political leader in Tunisia, ahead of former prime minister Youssef Chahed and the leftist Hamma Hammam.
Some indication of the frustration with Mr Ghannouchi came on Sunday, with an online video showing him being jeered during a visit to a party stronghold near the coastal city of Gabes.