Tunisia’s Mechichi Government: Context and Challenges

On September 1st, 2020, Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi’s government won a vote of confidence in parliament with a comfortable majority. The vote came just weeks after Elyes Fakhfakh’s government resigned amid disputes between parliament and the president and changes within the fragile alliances that formed after the 2019 elections.

Contexts behind the Government’s Formation

Following the resignation of former Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh––against a backdrop of accusations of conflicts of interest and abuse of power in order to conclude “illegal” deals1–– President Kais Saied asked parliamentary blocs and parties to recommend in writing their choice for taking on the task of leading the new government. In doing so, Saied overturned the precedent of direct consultations and meetings set by former presidents Beji Caid Essebsi and Moncef Marzouki. Even though most blocs—with the exception of the Dignity Coalition bloc (I’tilaf al-Karama), which rejected Saied’s proposed process and instead demanded political consultations—were quick to offer their proposals, this measure failed to conceal the displeasure of the Ennahda Movement that commands the largest bloc in parliament.

After his appointment, Mechichi announced that he would begin forming a technocratic government free of representatives from any political party. Despite his failure to disclose that moving forward in preparing his nonpartisan cabinet had come at Saied’s behest, it was clear that the decision was taken at the request of the president, who has made known his desire to formulate a nonpartisan political system on more than one occasion. Saied has also advocated implementing constitutional amendments for moving away from the parliamentary system––where majorities lead government formation and provide the subsequent vote of confidence––to a presidential system. In essence, the premier in this model becomes a mere “chief minister” (wazir awwal) tasked with carrying out the policies of the president who is directly elected by the Tunisian people and enjoys expanded presidential powers.

Mechichi’s decision, backed by President Saied, to form a technocratic government and marginalize the role of the parties faced opposition from most of the active parliamentary blocs. The Ennahda Movement, Qalb Tounes, Dignity Coalition, and Democratic Current (al-Tayyar al-Dimuqrati) all rejected this decision and demanded a “political” government reflecting the results of elections and the balance of power in parliament. The People’s Movement (Harakat al-Sha‘b), however, expressed its intention to vote in favor of Mechichi’s government, described by movement leaders as “the president’s government.” Partial opposition to the “technocratic government” decision escalated in the final days leading up to the announcement of the new cabinet, following a series of reports on pressures officials close to the president placed upon Mechichi to force their close allies on him. This was regarded as a form of meddling on the part of unconstitutional authorities in the process of government formation.

The positions about Mechichi’s government remained firm until the final three days before the constitutional deadline. They however began to change rapidly as the government structure was submitted to President Saied to be sent in turn to the speaker of parliament for a vote of confidence. News emerged that the president was going to withdraw his support for Mechichi amid escalating disputes between the two. This became clear when President Saied invited representatives of Ennahda, the Democratic Current, the People’s Movement, and Tahya Tounes to an unexpected meeting at the presidential palace in Carthage for consultation on the issue of the government in spite of his previous rejection of direct consultations on the matter. It was subsequently leaked that the president demanded that attendees vote no-confidence on Mechichi’s government, preserve Fakhfakh’s caretaker government, and replace Fakhfakh with another.2 Following the meeting, the president’s office made sure to broadcast clips from the speech Saied tensely gave to attendees where he stressed that “there is no room to establish a new government only to bring forth falsifications against it after a brief period,” and that “the Tunisian people have a new political view that must be matched by a new conception of the political process.”3

President Saied’s sudden abandonment of the prime minister he himself chose, his being forced to accept the direct consultations he had previously refused to hold with the parties, and his subsequent attempt to direct the parties to carry out his wishes when he changed his mind about Mechichi elicited varied reactions. Whereas the Democratic Current and People’s Movement adopted a no-confidence stance toward the government, Ennahda organized a meeting of its Shura Council the night before the parliamentary session and resolved to vote in favor of approving the government—the same choice taken by Qalb Tounes. As such, Mechichi set off with his team to the halls of parliament on September 1st, convinced he would gain confidence; conversely, Ennahda and Qalb Tounes knew how to overturn the president’s strong desire for unchallenged rule and revive their parliamentary majority.

Tensions after the Vote

Parliament approved Mechichi’s government by a vote of 134 to 67, with some members of parliament absent from the session. It appears from the results of the vote that members outside of the Ennahda-Qalb Tounes-Future Tunisia blocs voted in favor of granting confidence allowing for the passage of the vote with a comfortable majority.

The success of Mechichi’s government in gaining the confidence of parliament by a comfortable majority strengthened the stance of Ennahda, Qalb Tounes, and, to a lesser extent, the Dignity Coalition––whose MPs were split between for and against––in their battle with President Saied. However, this has not ended the contention between the two sides. During the swearing-in ceremony, President Saied gave a speech in which he railed against unnamed “parties,” although the context of his speech appeared clearly directed at the Ennahda Movement, Qalb Tounes, the Dignity Coalition, and those MPs who had critiqued his decisions during the vote of confidence. The president, unable to conceal his strong sense of disappointment in Mechichi who chose to seek his opponents’ support, appeared extremely tense during his speech, addressing his opponents in harsh terms and threatening to someday hold them to account and bring “their conspiracies” to light.4

Mechichi’s comfortable majority in the confidence vote and the president’s unprecedented tone suggest a deepening quarrel between Saied and the parliamentary majority. That the new alliance came to hold such a majority, giving them the power to decide the fate of the government and the policy it produces, represents one possible factor in the escalation of tensions between the two. Prime Minister Mechichi is well aware that the stability of his government and its continuing ability to carry out its mandate are contingent on maintaining the confidence of the Ennahda movement, the Qalb Tounes party, the Dignity Coalition, and the Future bloc. This is to be expected in a parliamentary system. On the other hand, Mechichi also understands that while the president’s parliamentary bases of support––primarily the People’s Movement, the Democratic Current, and other smaller blocs––cannot shift the current balance of power, they most certainly can obstruct and sabotage him.

At the same time, it is possible that the new balances and fledgling alliances and the fissure in Mechichi’s relationship with President Saied could lead to the replacement of the latter’s supporters in the government with members of the new coalition. That would change the government from a technocratic to a “political” one that draws on technocratic expertise, as in other parliamentary systems. Judging by the statements given by some of the party leaders in the Mechichi camp, this is likely to happen very soon. Any such reshuffle is expected to lead to further decline in the president’s influence within the government.

The consequences of Fakhfakh’s resignation, Mechichi’s rise, and how the new government is perceived have not only exacerbated tensions between the president’s camp and his opposition but also left an impact on some of the parties. Directly following the vote of confidence, Mohamed Abbou, secretary-general of the Democratic Current who remained loyal to President Saied and former Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh, announced his resignation and retreat from politics. This resignation is expected to impact the cohesion of the Democratic Current, its presence in the political arena, and its fortunes in the upcoming elections. There is also a possibility that this splintering disease may infect other parties and blocs.

Fortunes for Success in a Challenging Context

During the confidence vote, Mechichi detailed the challenges that await his government, including the increase in public debt to 80 billion TND ($29 billion, which represents about 70% of the country’s GDP) and public debt servicing amounting to twice the state’s development expenditures; declining consumer demand and a sharp decline in savings; the drop in the investment rate to 13% with unemployment exceeding the 15% threshold; the downturn in phosphate and oil production due to civil unrest; deteriorating quality of education; and weak healthcare infrastructure. To deal with this troubling socioeconomic reality, Mechichi has promised that his government will be “a government of work and success,” with an agenda based on five central priorities:

  1. Halting the hemorrhage in public finances,
  2. Reforming the public sector,
  3. Regaining trust and promoting investment,
  4. Protecting the purchasing power of ordinary Tunisians, and
  5. Protecting marginalized groups.5

The government’s agenda proposed by Mechichi during the vote of confidence session did not greatly differ from plans put forward by previous governments since 2011, with the same emphasis on socioeconomic issues. It is thus fair to ask whether Mechichi’s government will really be able to overcome the conditions that have prevented previous governments from carrying out their mandates given the stark economic outlook––which has only declined further in last few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the deteriorating situation in neighboring Libya. It is likely that Mechichi, as part of what he dubbed “the great reforms” and his invitation to “share the burden in anticipation of improving conditions,” will start to implement policies that lack popular approval, such as cutting government subsidies on essentials to reduce the strain on the national budget; freezing employment in the public sector; making reductions in services; imposing new taxes; and privatizing failing state enterprises, all measures that past experiences have confirmed are sure to trigger unrest and mass protests.

Inauspicious socioeconomic indicators and potential negative consequences arising from any austerity measures are not the only difficulties facing Mechichi’s government. Dominated by forces of attraction and repulsion between parties, blocs, and governing institutions, the political scene serves as another challenge for the new cabinet. It will find itself trapped between a parliamentary alliance with a majority and a president who is now openly at war with that parliament, and who enjoys wide constitutional prerogatives with regard to foreign relations (including economic relations) as well as the exclusive power to sign parliamentary bills into law––although this power is a purely formal one, since parliament is the real legislative authority.

Conclusion

With Mechichi’s government having obtained the confidence of the parliament, the political and institutional scene in Tunisia is entering a new stage—one that is expected to be dominated by conflicts and tensions. Even though Mechichi has vowed to begin work on a package of measures to heal the social and economic crises facing the country, the worsening negative indicators and structural crises from which the Tunisian economic and development model suffers—in addition to the difficulties imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the chaos of the situation in Libya—make it unlikely that radical changes will take place in the foreseeable future. In order for any Tunisian government to be able to simultaneously undertake reforms and development, it must have access to the opportunities to do so. Likewise, president and parliament alike, as well as union institutions and their counterparts, ought to be aware that this is the duty of the government. The duty of the presidency and parliament, in turn, is to watch over and manage their government—not to undermine it.

An earlier version of this paper was published on September 7, 2020 by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) in Doha, Qatar.

1 “Resignation of Fakhfakh’s government: causes and consequences for the political scene in Tunisia,” Situation Assessment, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 20 July 2020. Accessed 4 September 2020 at https://bit.ly/3jF9SfU.
2 Walid al-Talili, “Tunisia: Saied revokes support for Mechichi and the ball is in Ennahda’s court,” The New Arab, 31 August 2020. Accessed 3 September 2020 at https://bit.ly/2YX8z3O; Walid al-Talili, “Tunisia: ‘Coup’ in the final hours in Mechichi’s favor,” The New Arab, 2 September 2020. Accessed 4 September 2020 at https://bit.ly/3gU7tvS.
3 President of the Tunisian Republic page, Facebook, 31 August 2020. Accessed 3 September 2020 at https://bit.ly/3hUDqpl.
4 “President of the Republic supervises procession of members of government taking the constitutional oath”, Facebook, President of the Tunisian Republic page2 September 2020. Accessed 3 September 2020 at https://bit.ly/3hVbEsI.
5 Acting prime minister’s speech, YouTube, “Assembly of the Representatives of the People,” 1 September 2020. Accessed 4 September at https://bit.ly/354WRIl.