TUNIS (Reuters) - Thirty two Tunisian lawmakers accused President Beji Caid Essebsi's son of meddling and resigned from the ruling party bloc in parliament on Monday, allowing Islamist rivals to become the largest party.
Tunisia has enjoyed a period of political stability following its transition to democracy after its 2011 uprising ousted autocrat Zine Abidine Ben Ali, but earlier this month brawling broke out between two factions of the Nidaa Tounes party over what critics say were attempts by Essebsi's son to seize control.
"We decided to resign from the party's bloc today after the refusal to hold an executive committee meeting, which is the only legitimate structure of the party," Hassouna Nasfi, one of the protesting deputies told reporters on Monday.
"We resigned to protest the non-democratic way in which the party has been managed."
The resignations may complicate attempts to push through sensitive reforms that Tunisia's international lenders are demanding to curb public spending and kickstart an economy hit by two major Islamist militant attacks this year.
Nidaa Tounes, founded by Essebsi, emerged as a political force in 2013 to lead popular protests against the Islamist Ennahda government, eventually forcing it to step down and make way for a non-partisan transitional government and new elections.
It beat Ennahda in elections last year and went on to form a coalition with its rival. But cracks began to emerge over the party's structure, direction and appointments after Essebsi senior was elected president and stepped down as its leader.
After the resignations, the Ennahda Islamist party has 67 seats and Nidaa Tounes 54 seats in parliament.
Insiders say Nidaa Tounes is now divided into two wings, one led by the Tunisian president's son Hafhed Caid Essebsi and the other by Mohsen Marzouk, a former leftist activist and the party's secretary general.
Marzouk's wing resists what some see as an attempt at a hereditary transfer of power and return of the autocratic style of the Ben Ali era. Allies of the president dismiss claims they are looking to place his son into a position of influence.
The camp led by the president's son is pushing for a larger role through a party restructuring. Critics say they have not recognized the executive committee as the legitimate body to manage party affairs.
Reporting by Tarek Amara; Editing by Patrick Markey/Ruth Pitchford