November 15, 2019 / 3:14 PM / a month ago

Ennahda's choice Jemli tapped to be Tunisia PM, faces big challenge

TUNIS (Reuters) - A former junior minister faces the challenge of creating a ruling coalition in economically troubled Tunisia after the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which took most seats in last month’s election, tapped him as prime minister on Friday.

Tunisian President Kais Saied shakes hands with Prime Minister designate Habib Jemli in Tunis, Tunisia, in this handout pictured obtained by Reuters on November 15, 2019. Tunisian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

Habib Jemli vowed to be open to all political parties in picking his government. He will have two months to fashion a coalition out of a fractured parliament in which Ennahda, as the largest party, took only a quarter of the seats.

Any new government will need the support of at least two other parties to command even the minimum parliamentary majority of 109 seats needed to pass legislation.

“Efficiency and integrity will be the basis for choosing the members of the government, whatever their affiliations without exclusion to any party,” Jemli, 60, an agricultural engineer, said on Friday.

On Wednesday, Ennahda’s election foe Heart of Tunisia endorsed Ennahda’s veteran leader Rached Ghannouchi as parliament speaker, a sign the two might put aside their earlier hostility and cooperate on a coalition.

Jemli served as a junior minister in the first government formed in late 2011 after the fall of autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali to a pro-democracy uprising. Ennahda also led that government.

Analysts say the new government will need clear political will and strong backing in parliament to push through economic reforms started by the outgoing prime minister, Youssef Chahed, who is acting as caretaker during coalition talks.

His cabinet has focused on spending cuts backed by the International Monetary Fund to bring Tunisia’s hefty deficit and public debt under control while raising spending on security to woo back tourists to the North African state.

ECONOMIC CRUNCH

Economic woes - unemployment of 15% nationally and 30% in some cities, inflation of nearly 7% and a weak dinar - have plagued Tunisia since its 2011 revolution, which spawned democracy and sparked the “Arab Spring”.

Those problems, alongside deteriorating public services and a public perception of widespread government corruption, drove voters to reject the political establishment in this autumn’s elections.

“I hope that it will be a new start. After we completed democratic transition, the focus will be on development, fighting against corruption, unemployment and high prices,” Ghannouchi said on Friday.

Public anger may make it harder for a new prime minister to continue to cut spending, and he will be buffeted by the same competing demands to control the deficit while improving services.

President Saied, an independent retired law professor, has already pushed anti-corruption proposals since his inauguration, a program that diplomats have said could win enough public support to buy time for new economic reforms.

Heart of Tunisia, which came second in the parliamentary election, is headed by media mogul Nabil Karoui who was detained for much of the election period on corruption charges, which he denies.

Ennahda, whose own candidate lost to Saied and Karoui in the first round of a separate presidential election, had sworn not to enter into coalition with his Heart of Tunisia party, painting it as part of a corrupt elite.

Reporting by Tarek Amara; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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