By Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall
TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia faced political deadlock on Monday after Sunday’s election delivered a fragmented parliament and no obvious path to forming a government that must urgently address chronic economic and fiscal problems.
Sunday’s exit polls showed the moderate Islamist Ennahda as the largest party, but its modest projected vote share means it would need to bring many other parties into any workable coalition. Official results are not expected until Tuesday.
“The task will be very difficult and complicated to reach an agreement to form a government,” said Yamina Zoglami, a senior Ennahda official.
Several of Ennahda’s rivals have already said they will not join a government it leads, and Tunisians are confronting the prospect of protracted negotiations and the possibility of another election if no coalition can be agreed.
The parliamentary vote comes amid a separate presidential election in which one of the two candidates who advanced to next Sunday’s runoff vote is being held in detention on corruption charges, entailing a possible challenge to that result.
Eight years after ending autocratic rule, many Tunisians are disillusioned by the failure of repeated coalition governments to address economic problems and their rejection of major parties threatens a new period of upheaval.
If official results confirm Ennahda’s first place, it has two months to form a coalition. After that the president can ask a politician of his choice to try. If that also fails after two months, Tunisians will go back to the ballot box.
Next week’s presidential runoff pits Kais Saied, an independent, against Nabil Karoui, a media mogul detained on corruption charges that he denies. If he loses, he might appeal to overturn the result citing his detention.
Speaking on Sunday night, another senior Ennahda official, Abdelkarim Haloumi, said he hoped a new parliamentary election could be avoided and that the party would attempt to build a coalition from among the parties opposed to corruption.
A governing coalition requires 109 seats in government. Ennahda’s vote share projected by the exit poll would translate into about 40 seats, the polling company Sigma Conseil said.
It and Karoui’s Heart of Tunisia, which exit polls projected as coming second with about 33 seats, had already ruled out going into coalition with each other before the election. A spokesman for Karoui repeated that after Sunday’s vote, calling it “a red line”.
Attayar, another party that appeared on course for more than a dozen seats in parliament, also said it would not enter government with Ennahda, with its leader Mohamed Abbou saying “we will be a responsible and serious opposition”.
However, the conservative Karama said it would be ready to enter coalition negotiations with Ennahda if asked.
Any political paralysis entails new risks for a fragile economy that has never really recovered from the shock of the 2011 revolution that ended decades of autocracy, introduced democracy and set off the “Arab spring”.
Urged on by the International Monetary Fund, Tunisia is trying to rein in a public debt that swelled as political leaders sought to buy goodwill with rampant state employment.
However, there is unemployment of 15% nationally and 30% in some cities, inflation remains high at 6.8%, and tourism is only this year recovering from two jihadist attacks in 2015 that caused many countries to warn off their citizens.
Economic pain has contributed to an anti-establishment mood among Tunisian voters, who punished the main parties in the first round of the presidential election last month.
Though exit polls showed Ennahda coming first on Sunday, its projected vote share of 17.5% represented a sharp decline from the last parliamentary election in 2014, when it had 27.5%.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall and Tarek Amara; Editing by Alison Williams)