Tunisia to raise fuel prices, not public wages to meet IMF terms

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Tunisia will raise fuel prices in the coming days but hold off increasing public wages this year to meet terms of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for its next loan tranche, a government official and diplomatic sources said.

The North African country also plans to sell Eurobonds worth $1 bln over the next two weeks to help fund a budget hammered by a deep economic crisis, the official told Reuters.

The new austerity measures are likely to meet resistance from the powerful labour union UGTT and people tired of austerity, galloping inflation and political instability since the toppling of autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

Tunisia agreed with the IMF in December 2016 on a loan program worth around $2.8 bln to overhaul its ailing economy with steps to cut chronic deficits and trim bloated public services, but progress has been slow.

An IMF delegation visited Tunisia this week to review with officials the next tranche worth around $250 mln which, if approved, would bring total payments since 2016 to $1.2 bln.

The government official said that fuel prices would rise by $0.027 a litre in the coming days, the third hike this year but below the 0.100 dinar the IMF had asked for, as the government has whittled down subsidies on imported fuel.

For 2018, Tunisia had budgeted 1.5 bln dinars in subsidies but with a recent rise in global oil prices it would have to spend 4 bln to avoid a rise in pump prices, he said.

“The IMF is demanding that the (fuel price) increase in all 2018 be about 0.500 dinar, but we want the adjustment to be acceptable to curb inflation” the official said.

To appease donors, Tunisia also wants to delay a public salary increase considered for 2018 until next year, though this needs to be negotiated with the labour unions, he added.

Western government, worried about high unemployment driving Tunisians into illegal migration or Islamist militancy, have strongly backed Tunis during the post 2011-transition even without much evidence of progress on economic reforms.

But in a sign of increasing donor impatience, diplomats said, the United States abstained when the IMF voted to approve the most recent loan tranche.

The government has been trying to cut the public sector wage bill to 12.5 percent of GDP in 2020 from 15 percent - one of the world’s highest - by offering voluntary redundancies But few have taken up the offer due to high unemployment.

The UGTT union, the political kingmaker in Tunis, has rejected plans to dismiss public servants and sell loss-making state firm.

Talks with the IMF have been held while the ruling coalition of secularists and moderate Islamists has been locked in dispute over the extent of reforms and a possible cabinet reshuffle.

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