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Restive election climate could deepen Tunisia's political impasse

Restive election climate could deepen Tunisia's political impasse
Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia's moderate Islamist Ennahda party, greets his supporters during a campaign event ahead of the parliamentary elections in Tunis, Tunisia October 3, 2019. Picture taken October 3, 2019. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi -
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ZOUBEIR SOUISSI(Reuters)
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By Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall

TUNIS (Reuters) – Dissatisfaction with established parties in Tunisian politics means Sunday’s parliamentary elections may not yield a clear winner, complicating the process of coalition building at a pivotal moment for the economy.

Reflecting the uncertain atmosphere, two leading parties have sworn not to join governments containing the other, a stance that bodes ill for the give-and-take vital to forming an administration.

Eight years after the revolution which triggered the “Arab spring” uprisings, many Tunisians have grown disillusioned with an establishment that has failed to improve living standards.

“I won’t vote because I’m convinced the new rulers will be worse than the previous ones,” said Karim Abidi, a 29-year-old hairdresser in Tunis who said he wants to join the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to work in Italy.

Though Tunisian politics has long involved secular and Islamist groups competing in elections then sharing power, an emerging populism threatens an end to compromise.

Three weeks ago, in a separate, presidential election, voters turned on all the main players in government, rejecting prominent politicians to send a pair of political newcomers through to a second-round runoff.

On Oct. 13, Kais Saied, an independent with conservative social views, will face Nabil Karoui, a media mogul who has been in detention since August accused of money laundering and tax fraud, which he denies.

It has set the stage for a fractious vote this Sunday, one that is arguably more important than the presidential election because it is parliament that will shape the next government.

Under Tunisia’s 2014 constitution, a prime minister drawn from the biggest party in parliament controls most domestic policy, while the president is only directly in charge of the foreign and defence briefs.

If even the biggest party fails to win a large number of seats, with many independents standing, it may struggle to build a coalition reaching the 109 MPs needed to secure majority support for a new government.

It has two months from the election to do so before the president can ask another party to begin negotiations to form a government. If that fails, the election will be held again.

With unemployment standing at about 15% nationally, and 30% in some cities, and with the government in the middle of efforts to rein in inflation that hit 7.8% last year, any political paralysis could be dangerous.

DISAPPOINTMENT

Two of the best-fancied parties, the moderate Islamist Ennahda and Karoui’s Heart of Tunisia, have sworn not to join governments containing the other. Both focus on poverty as the main issue, but each is struggling with their own weaknesses.

Ennahda is trying to win back former voters disappointed by its role in a succession of coalition governments. It has backed the independent Saied in the presidential election, hoping to woo over his supporters for the parliamentary vote.

Its leader, Rached Ghannouchi, an exile before the 2011 uprising, is standing for election for the first time and may seek to become the speaker of parliament.

He has said this election is about a choice between revolutionaries such as Ennahda and Kais Saied, and “parties of corruption”, a reference to Karoui and his legal troubles.

Recent revelations in regional media of documents appearing to show Karoui paid $1 million to a Canadian consulting firm, which he has denied, have added to his problems. If true, it could breach electoral financing rules.

Though Karoui’s Nessma television station broadcasts in support of Heart of Tunisia, his detention means the party’s most charismatic figure has been absent for weeks.

His wife Saloua Samoui has been its campaigning face, travelling the countryside to meet the poor and women working on farmland, telling them that Heart of Tunisia will help them.

It hopes to win both the presidency and parliament, prizes that would give it great control over Tunisian affairs.

However, any coalition that does emerge faces the same unpalatable choice that has bedevilled previous governments: economic reforms opposed by a powerful union or higher public debt opposed by foreign lenders.

“The scene will be murkier in the coming period. When politicians were united they failed to meet our demands. I’m sure they can’t do it now they are divided,” said Abidi, the hairdresser.

(Reporting By Tarek Amara, writing by Angus McDowall, Editing by William Maclean)

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