Tunisia Islamists set to resign after deal on election commission

TUNIS Tue Jan 7, 2014 12:16pm EST

1 of 2. Tunisia's outgoing Prime Minister Ali Larayedh (R) meets with Hussein Abassi (C), head of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), and Wided Bouchamaoui (L), president of Tunisia's Employers' Organisation (UTICA), in Tunis January 6 , 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Zoubeir Souissi

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's ruling Islamists are preparing to resign in the next few days to make way for a caretaker cabinet once government and opposition parties agree on the makeup of an electoral commission, mediators said on Tuesday.

Three years after its uprising ousted veteran autocratic president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia is in the final stages of its transition to full democracy after months of deadlock between Islamist and secular parties.

Late last year, after a political crisis erupted, the ruling Islamist party Ennahda agreed to hand over power to a caretaker government once a new constitution was complete, an election committee named and a date for elections set.

Tunisia's national assembly last week began voting on the final parts of the new constitution, and parties on Tuesday were working out disagreements over composition of the election commission to oversee a vote later this year.

Mediators led by the powerful UGTT labor union said on Tuesday Prime Minister Ali Larayedh has expressed his readiness to step down once there is agreement on the nine members of the election commission.

"If parties reach an agreement, handover would come in the next two days," Bou Ali Mbarki, deputy leader of the UGTT.

Tunisian parties have already named a new transitional prime minister, Mehdi Jomaa, an engineer and former minister who will appoint a non-political cabinet to rule until elections later this year.

POLITICAL BATTLE

The uneasy compromise between Ennahda and the secular opposition in Tunisia's transition contrasts with instability affecting Libya, Egypt and Yemen, who also ousted leaders in the 2011 Arab Spring.

Tunisia, one of the most secular nations in the Arab world, slid into a stalemate after the assassination of two secular politicians by Islamist militants last year, widening divisions over the role of Islam.

With Ennahda and leading opposition party Nidaa Tounes positioning themselves as key contenders in upcoming elections, the selection of the electoral committee is seen as a key political battle before setting a date for the ballot.

The electoral commission will organize and fix dates for the coming legislative and presidential elections, and will also draw up electoral districts and set electorate lists.

Ennahda and its opponents have agreed to try to finish the transition and handover to Jomaa's caretaker government by January 14, the third anniversary of the uprising that inspired other countries to rise up against long-standing rulers.

"All parties are pushing to get members close to them in that election commission," said Abdessattar Ben Moussa, another negotiator. "It is not easy to get a compromise, but we are confident. An agreement will come in the next two days."

(Editing by Patrick Markey and Tom Heneghan)

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