Military officers escort the coffin of late Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi during his funeral in Tunis, Tunisia July 27, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad - RC1D6D0B46B0

Essebsi’s death to weaken Nidaa Tounes party, strengthen opposition in upcoming parliamentary elections – Tunisia Analysis

Executive Summary

On July 25, President Beji Caid Essebsi passed away due to health issues. His death is likely to further exacerbate the existing political polarization within Nidaa Tounes, the current ruling party. This may prompt resignations or defections by party members. Moreover, given Essebsi’s image as a symbolic leader of Nidaa Tounes, his death may further weaken electoral support for the party in the upcoming elections.

While the weakening of Nidaa Tounes will further bolster the positions of the two leading parties in the parliament, Tahya Tounes and the Ennahda Movement, given the number of political parties, which is around 1,500, an absolute majority in the parliament is unlikely for any single party. Thus, further political alliances and coalitions will be formed in the upcoming elections.

Such coalitions will challenge the legislative process as they would require compromise between political parties. This will likely lead to weak and ambiguous policies and pose a challenge to the implementation of effective economic policies. Thus, the public’s socio-economic grievances with the government will likely continue, leading to instances of unrest across the country.

Travel to Tunis may continue while adhering to all security precautions regarding militancy and civil unrest. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support options.

Key Parties, Alliances, Rivalries in Tunisian Politics

Current Situation

In January 2019, political leaders from the Nidaa Tounes Coalition announced the formation of a new party, Tahya Tounes, to compete in the October 2019 parliamentary elections. The party is led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and represents the National Alliance bloc.

On April 13, two secretary-generals of Nidaa Tounes party were elected in separate meetings. Abdelaziz Kotti was elected as the Secretary-General of Nidaa Tounes party in a meeting held in Hammamet, while Hafedh Caid Essebsi was elected as the Secretary-General of Nidaa Tounes in a meeting held in Monastir.

On May 22, Tahya Tounes and al-Moubadara announced a merger of their political parties, agreeing upon the regulatory and legal provisions of the merger. Subsequently, on June 9, Nidaa Tounes and Machrou Tounes announced a national alliance.

On June 18, the government passed an amendment to the electoral law, which was introduced by Tahya Tounes and Ennahda in parliament. The law set the minimum threshold for the legislative elections at three percent and disqualified candidates who have made public statements perceived to contradict Tunisia’s democratic principles or have allegedly benefited from political publicity over the year preceding the elections. However, the amendment was not endorsed by Beji Caid Essebsi, the now former President of Tunisia.

On July 25, Essebsi passed away due to health issues. Subsequently, the Speaker of the House of People’s Representatives (HPR), Mohamed Ennaceur, also a member of Nidaa Tounes, took office as acting president.

The presidential elections were preponed from November 17 to September 15 in line with the constitution, which states that presidential elections must be held between 45 to 90 days following the death of the sitting president.

Parliamentary Composition of Tunisia


Nidaa Tounes and the Ennahda Movement, the current plurality party, formed a coalition government following the 2014 elections, when Nidaa Tounes won 86 seats, closely followed by the Ennahda Movement, which won 69 seats. However, in January 2016, when Essebsi’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, was made leader of the Nidaa Tounes Party, 32 members of parliament (MPs) resigned, making Ennahda the majority party in the parliament. On September 15, 2018, Hafedh suspended the party membership of PM Chahed, alleging that he failed to handle the country’s ailing economy, likely triggered by the nationwide anti-austerity protests that ensued in January 2018 following the enactment of austerity measures under the 2018 budget law. Subsequently, on September 25, 2018, Essebsi announced an end to Nidaa Tounes’ five-year coalition with the Ennahda Movement, as the latter wished to form a consensus with Chahed’s party.

Assessments & Forecast

Weakening of Nidaa Tounes to increase Tahya Tounes and Ennahda’s lead in October 2019 parliamentary elections

Given precedent of Hafedh’s role in polarizing Nidaa Tounes, particularly considering the resignation of 32 MPs following his appointment, Essebsi’s death is likely to further weaken Hafedh’s leadership of the party. This assessment is bolstered by the fact that after Hafedh was made leader, 18 more MPs resigned, some of them defecting to Tahya Tounes, decreasing the party’s parliamentary membership to 26 MPs. The April 13 election of two secretary-generals in separate meetings highlights the ongoing divisions within the party, with the meeting in Hammamet indicating efforts by party members to distance the party from Hafedh. FORECAST: Given Hafedh’s already weakening leadership, Essebsi’s death, a primary supporter of Hafedh’s leadership, will likely further damage his image. This may therefore prompt other MPs to either resign from their positions or defect to an opposing party. The weakening of Nidaa Tounes will bolster Tahya Tounes and Ennahda’s standing in the parliamentary elections, as indicated by the Ennahda Movement becoming the majority party and Tahya Tounes overtaking Nidaa Tounes with a total of 45 MPs at the time of writing. Essebsi’s death will therefore serve to further bolster electoral support for the former and their subsequent ability to win a majority, or at least a plurality, of the seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Moreover, Essebsi has been seen as a symbolic leader among the electorate, particularly given his connection to Tunisia’s first President Habib Bourguiba, who is remembered reverently. As such, it is likely that the majority of the electoral support that Nidaa Tounes gained in 2014 was due to Essebsi’s leadership of the party. Given Hafedh’s current unpopularity, the current leader of the party, the electorate is unlikely to favor Nidaa Tounes should he become the public figure of the party. FORECAST: Thus, following Essebsi’s passing, it is unclear who will conclusively represent the party to the public, particularly given the internal polarization. Meanwhile, Chahed’s long-standing role in the government as Prime Minister has allowed him to garner the support of the electorate, with his party’s favorability as of June 2019 at 8.6 percent as opposed to that of Nidaa Tounes at 5 percent. This will therefore enable Tahya Tounes to garner votes from segments of Essebsi’s supporters who are critical of Hafedh and his policies.

Large number of parliamentary groups likely to require inter-party coalitions, alliances

The June 18 electoral law proposed by Tahya Tounes and supported by parliamentary majority party, Ennahda, was likely an effort to bolster their ability to form a single party government, given that the number of parties in Tunisia are currently around 1,500. This is further evidenced by the amendments restricting political candidacy based on vague pretext, which disqualify candidates who have made public statements perceived to contradict Tunisia’s democratic principles or have allegedly benefited from political publicity over the year preceding the elections. However, prior to his death, Essebsi neither vetoed nor endorsed the electoral amendment, which requires his signature to be passed into law. FORECAST: Given that a potential referendum or a revote in parliament would take several weeks and delay the elections, it is unlikely that any measures will be taken to ensure the amendment’s passing. Moreover, regardless of whether the interim President Mohamed Ennaceur has the capacity to overturn Essebsi’s decision to not endorse the law, given that he too belongs to Nidaa Tounes, he is unlikely to pass the amendment into law.

FORECAST: As such, despite Tahya Tounes and Ennahda’s current lead in parliamentary seats, they will likely not be able to gain a majority in the upcoming parliamentary elections without inter-party coalitions. Moreover, while Tahya Tounes does maintain a higher favorability than Nidaa Tounes, the former saw a drop in its favorability between May and June 2019, from 16.5 percent to 8.6 percent. This will likely prompt the party, along with Ennahda, to seek further alliances, as evidenced by the May 22 alliance the former made with al-Moubarada. However, while such alliances are often made with the intention to ease the parliamentary process, such a coalition of multiple parties will likely lead to political friction. This also remains possible in the alliance between Tahya Tounes and Ennahda. While the two are currently aligned, largely due to their efforts to defeat Nidaa Tounes, given that the two parties diverge based on their ideologies, there is liable to be political friction between the two on future policy issues.

Parliamentary alliances to weaken legislative procedures, political disillusionment likely to grow

The upcoming elections may bring persistent challenges to the legislative process. While Ennahda and Tahya Tounes currently converge on their views on economic policies, namely the implementation of austerity measures to reduce Tunisia’s budget deficit, their policies on other legislative matters may diverge. However, in the name of maintaining a political alliance between the two parties, it remains possible that the two will compromise on key policy issues, leading to weak legislation. On the other hand, should neither party be willing to compromise on such issues, they are unlikely to gain a majority to pass any proposed legislation. Hence, while such alliances may allow the parties to gain and maintain a majority in the short run, they will likely hinder the government’s ability to pass effective and comprehensive legislation in the parliament, which, in turn, would lead to political stagnation in the months following the elections.

Moreover, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the country’s largest labor union, has currently pledged its support to Nidaa Tounes, given the latter’s criticism of austerity measures. Thus, despite the alliance between the two majority parties, polarization between political parties over economic policies will likely continue. Should Tahya Tounes and Ennahda win the elections, they will continue to be challenged by the UGTT due to their efforts to implement austerity measures. However, should the government fail to implement such measures, possibly due to efforts to maintain the UGTT’s support, it will continue to hinder Tunisia’s economic growth due to expanding budget deficit and lack of foreign investment. Therefore, the government will likely continue to struggle to implement a long term economic policy that will promote Tunisia’s development, while addressing the public’s socio-economic grievances resulting from such measures.

FORECAST: Given the likelihood of political friction within the government and the subsequent hurdles to legislation and economic policies, the upcoming elections are unlikely to alleviate the public’s ongoing socio-economic grievances with the government. Such grievances have previously manifested in the form of labor action and protests. Following the March 30 increase in fuel prices, Tunisia witnessed nationwide protests on April 2, which reportedly included the blocking of roads and burning of tires in Tunis, Monastir, Sousse, Sidi Bouzid, and Siliana governorates. The government’s inability to pass effective legislation and implement economic measures will likely further exacerbate the public’s grievances and subsequently the political disillusionment with the democratic process. As such, regardless of the outcome of the parliamentary elections, instances of civil unrest are likely to be witnessed across Tunisia.


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