Eyes on Tunisia as president may challenge PM

Manama: All eyes will be on Tunisia’s President Beji Qaid Al Sebsi on Monday evening as he talks about the challenges faced by the North African country and the future of Prime Minister Yousuf Chahed, who has been facing calls by his former party and powerful unions to step down.

In a live televised interview, Al Sebsi is expected to highlight the latest political, economic and social situation and to talk about the crisis involving him, his son Hafedh, a major member of the ruling Nida Tunis party, the prime minister and several parties that is threatening to paralyse the state.

Observers are wondering whether Al Sebsi will take a huge gamble and resort to Article 99 of the constitution, promulgated in 2014, to oust the government and defuse the crisis to his advantage.

Under the article, the president may ask the parliament to conduct a vote of confidence in the government on a maximum of two occasions during the entire presidential term.

If the government fails to win the confidence of the lawmakers, it resigns. However, if the government wins the vote of confidence on the two occasions, the president resigns.

The political crisis has simmered in Tunisia since Chahed, 43 – who was appointed as prime minister in August 2016 and his government approved by the parliament with 167 out of 194 votes – refused to step down.

After weeks of general support for the government and the prime minister, an internal crisis broke out within the Nida Tunis party that led to deep divisions over support for Chahed or Hafedh Al Sebsi.

The party power struggle soon widened, and several others joined the fray. While Al Nahda, the co-ruler in the country, supported Chahed, the opposition parties called for his removal.

The situation was compounded when in July, President Al Sebsi called publicly for the government to resign.

“We have reached the point where we must say we are going from bad to worse and this must be stopped. No government can succeed in responding to the demands of the people if it has no political scope and cannot achieve political consensus with all forces,” he said.

“In such a case, the prime minister either resigns from office or goes to the parliament for a vote of confidence.”

However, Chahed refused to resign and pledged to forge ahead with action plans set out by the government.

With the 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections looming large, several parties, mainly from the opposition, have been calling for action against Chahed, including pushing the president to invoke Article 99 of the constitution to force the government out.

Several members of the opposition saw in the standoff between the president and the prime minister an opportunity to bring down the government, and to get rid of some of their strong political opponents ahead of the elections.

Faced with the growing pressure, Chahed diligently worked on broadening his power base within the parliament to stave off a possible vote of no confidence. He worked closely with Al Nahda and won over several lawmakers who left the Nida Tunis Party.

With more lawmakers expressing their support, Chahed has been feeling more confident about his fate in parliament.

However, Al Nahda tried to rein in his enthusiasm, saying it supported him only as prime minister, and insisted that he should not run for president in 2019.

Tunisian analysts expressed doubts whether Al Sebsi would take the risk of calling for a no-confidence motion.

“Al Sebsi did not invoke Article 99 when Chahed had no power or parliament base and forcing him was easy, so it is very difficult for him to do it now,” Tunisian analyst Rafik Bin Abdullah said.

Yousuf Sakka, another analyst, also ruled out the possibility of a constitutional ousting of Chahed, arguing that Al Sebsi was “a political fox with a vast experience who would not put his legacy at risk.”

“Should he ask the parliament to vote on the government and loses, he will exit the political scene from the small door and his legacy will be badly damaged. I do not think he will run that risk,” he told Gulf News.

As the political crisis seems to have no end in sight, the labour union which opposes Chahed has announced that it would hold two major national strikes on October 24 and November 22, threatening to bring the country to a standstill.


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