Political splits threaten Tunisia's economic reform

Political divisions in Tunisia’s ruling coalition risk undermining economic reforms

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Political divisions in Tunisia’s ruling coalition risk undermining economic reforms and paralysing the government as it tries to revive the country’s post-revolution economy and tackle Islamist militancy.

Until recently, compromise between secular and Islamist parties in the governing alliance had helped keep Tunisia’s transition on track after the 2011 overthrow of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, which inspired uprisings across the Arab world.

But that consensus looks increasingly threatened by squabbling among secular allies and splits within the coalition.

When lawmakers voted for part of an economic reform package last week, the ruling alliance managed to force the bill through by just two votes after many of its lawmakers opposed the motion or abstained.

The vote on the bill to protect central bank autonomy was just one of the financial overhauls Tunisia’s international lenders are demanding to set the North African state’s economy on track after five years of upheaval.

But for ruling coalition parties to muster only 73 votes of the 150 they control in the 217-member congress underscored how political splits are starting to undermine those efforts.

Tunisia is struggling with lower tourism revenue after three militant attacks last year, protests over unemployment and slow economic revival.

“There are some in the coalition that think they can be in the government and the opposition at the same time,” said Ajmi Ourimi, a lawmaker with the Islamist Ennahda party, which is part of the coalition. “We’re in a crisis of coordination.”

After elections in late 2014, Prime Minister Habib Essid’s cabinet, including ministers from secularist Nidaa Tounes party, Ennahda and other minor parties, has struggled to make progress on economic reforms to match Tunisia’s political progress.

The International Monetary Fund this month reached a preliminary deal to assist Tunisia with a four-year loan program worth about $2.8 billion tied to economic reforms. That came after offers of aid from European partners.

But IMF Tunisia mission chief Amine Mati urged the government to start work immediately.

Splits in secular party Nidaa Tounes and its ally Afek Tounes have angered Essid, who felt the loss of political support as he seeks to pass more sensitive austerity-style reforms needing consensus to overcome any popular reactions.

“I feel frustrated after I saw the result of the vote on the Central Bank law. I held meetings with the four coalition parties in order to avoid the same scenario,” Essid told reporters.

But it is far from clear whether their positions will unify for new bills, especially with widening political divides among the four, Ennahda, Nidaa Tounes, Afek Tounes and Free Popular Union UPL party.

Nidaa Tounes, the party of President Beji Caid Essebsi, has already splintered over a dispute about the role his son might play in the party and its secretary-general and a group of lawmakers broke away to form a new political movement.

In a sign of more rifts, Yassin Ibrahim, the leader of Afek Tounes party, has suggested the formation of a new parliamentary bloc which includes liberal parties but excludes Ennahda.

Although Nidaa Tounes leaders rejected the proposal, Ibrahim’s comments could further weaken the fragile government.

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