TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh stepped down on Wednesday, plunging the country into a political crisis as it tries to weather the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
Fakhfakh presented his resignation to President Kais Saied, a government statement said. Political sources told Reuters Saied had asked him to do so as momentum grew in parliament to oust the prime minister over an alleged conflict of interest.
Saied must now choose a new candidate for prime minister, but parliament is deeply fragmented among rival parties and a failure to build another coalition would trigger an election.
The collapse of Fakhfakh’s government less than five months after it was formed will further delay urgent economic reforms and complicate efforts to handle any new surge in coronavirus cases after Tunisia brought a first wave under control.
Western countries have hailed Tunisia for its comparatively successful transition to democracy since the 2011 revolution that ended decades of autocratic rule despite periodic crises, but many Tunisians are deeply frustrated.
Since the revolution, the economy has stagnated, living standards have declined and public services have decayed while political parties often seemed more focused on staying in office than addressing a long list of problems.
Deep ideological splits in Fakhfakh’s government had made it harder to agree on the urgent economic reforms demanded by foreign lenders to bring Tunisia’s fiscal deficit and public debt into a more sustainable trajectory.
The pandemic has worsened those problems. Tunisia now expects the economy to shrink by 6.5% this year and forecasts a deficit equivalent to 7% of gross domestic product. It has asked four countries to delay debt repayments.
In poorer parts of the country, protests have been building to demand more jobs and state aid to help them cope with the economic fallout, sometimes blockading exports by state industries.
Mouna Kariem, a law professor, said Saied would now have 10 days to name a new candidate for prime minister who would have a month to form a government.
The last parliamentary election in October led to a chamber in which no party held more than a quarter of the seats, complicating efforts to form a stable government.
The biggest party, the moderate Islamist Ennahda, failed in its own attempt to build a coalition late last year and though it joined Fakhfakh’s government it has since been tussling for influence with President Saied.
Fakhfakh’s resignation came as Ennahda sought signatures for a vote of no confidence in the government. If that process had succeeded then it would have given Ennahda, rather than Saied, the right to nominate a new prime minister.
Ennahda’s push for a confidence vote was triggered by a report that Fakhfakh was guilty of a conflict of interest by owning shares in companies that had received state contracts. He denies any wrongdoing.
Two opposition parties, media mogul Nabil Karoui’s Heart of Tunisia and the conservative Karama, joined Ennahda in seeking the vote of confidence in Fakhfakh. By the time he had resigned, they had gathered 105 of the 109 signatures needed to trigger the vote.
Reporting by Tarek Amara; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Alison Williams and Nick Macfie