September 21, 2018 / 3:27 PM / 3 months ago

Tunisia's weakened premier unlikely to push reform as polls loom

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has survived attempts by his own party and unions to force him out but, with elections looming, looks less and less able to enact the economic reforms that have so far secured IMF support for an ailing economy.

Tunisia's Prime Minister Youssef Chahed speaks during the international forum on public-private partnerships in Tunis, Tunisia September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Last week, the Nidaa Tounes party suspended Chahed after a campaign by the party chairman, who is the son of President Beji Caid Essebsi.

Chahed has gathered enough support in parliament to stave off a possible vote of no confidence by working with the co-ruling Islamist Ennahda party and a number of other lawmakers including 10 Nidaa Tounes rebels. But his political capital is now badly depleted.

By surviving for more than two years, Chahed has become the longest-serving of Tunisia’s nine prime ministers since its Arab Spring democratic revolution in 2011.

In that time, he has pushed through austerity measures and structural reforms such as cutting fuel subsidies that have helped to underpin a $2.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other financial support.

Western partners see him as the best guarantee of stability in an infant democracy that they are desperate to shore up, not least as a bulwark against Islamist extremism.

Yet the economy, and living standards, continue to suffer: inflation and unemployment are at record levels, and goods such as medicines or even staples such as milk are often in short supply, or simply unaffordable to many.

CLINGING ON

And in recent months, the 43-year old former agronomist’s main focus has been to hold on to his job as his party starts to look to its ratings ahead of presidential and parliamentary polls in a year’s time.

The breathing space he has won is at best temporary; while propping him up for now, Ennahda says it will not back him to be prime minister again after the elections.

And, more pressingly, the powerful UGTT labour union on Thursday called a public sector strike for Oct. 24 to protest against Chahed’s privatisation plans.

This month, the government once more raised petrol and electricity prices to secure the next tranche of loans, worth $250 million, which the IMF is expected to approve next week.

But the IMF also wants it to cut a public wage bill that takes up 15 percent of GDP, one of the world’s highest rates.

That may be the kind of task that is beyond Chahed for now, as his party tries to avert the prospect of losing to Ennahda, Tunisia’s dominant political force since 2011, in next year’s elections.

“Chahed can benefit from the support of Ennahda and dozens of lawmakers to win confidence votes in parliament again — but I am not sure he can pass painful reforms,” said Jamel Arfaoui, a journalist and analyst.

“This means that the path of reforms ... will not be implemented next year.”

Editing by Kevin Liffey

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