The Free Patriotic Union (UPL-L’Union Patriotique Libre), while reiterating its continued support for Prime Minister Habib Essid’s government in its efforts to combat terrorism and implement development and employment reforms, announced in a statement released on Monday, May 16, it would suspend its activities in the coalition government.
Although the UPL has not formally withdrawn from the coalition government the party one of three junior coalition members announced the freezing of its activities in the ruling coalition and its various committees in protest over three of its deputies in the 217 seat Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) who resigned from the UPL and subsequently joined Nidaa Tounes.
“There are parts outside the official leadership of Nidaa Tounes that influence the decision of the party, and who are engaged in a conspiracy to weaken the UPL” the statement announcing the freeze declared. The UPL announcement did leave open the possibility of resuming its activities, once it had received a “clarification of the official position of the leaders of Nidaa Tounes”.
According to the UPL’s statement Nidaa Tounes is in violation of an agreement between coalition members not to poach or accept each other’s migratory deputies. The agreement in question was evoked by Nidaa Tounes itself when it was losing its own deputies in January to the Al-Horra parliamentary bloc formed by former Nidaa Tounes secretary general Mohsen Marzouk over a feud within Nidaa Tounes over the role of President Beji Caid Essebsi’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, in the party’s leadership.
The coalition currently includes the UPL as well as Ennahda, Nidaa Tounes and Afek Tounes. Last week the ARP formalized the three deputies’ adhesion to Nidaa Tounes. With the three former UPL members included Nidaa Tounes now holds 59 seats in the ARP behind Ennahda’s 69 seats, the UPL which now holds twelve seats remains ahead of Afek Tounes and its ten seats.
In addition to the Nidaa Tounes / Al-Horra split in January which saw Nidaa Tounes lose its parliamentary plurality to Ennahda, and during which over two dozen of its deputies joined Marzouk’s bloc, Al-Horra with its twenty seven seats has not joined the coalition government, there have been a series of squabbles between and within Tunisia’s secular parties.
The UPL also saw its former secretary general, and current Minister of Youth and Sport Mehdi Ben Dhia resign from the party in April, after Riahi, who is also the president of the Club Africain football club in Tunis, publicly accused Ben Dhia of laxism towards the Tunisian Football Federation whom Riahi accused of corruption after the Club Africain lost to Etoile Sportive du Sahel in April. Riahi then unsuccesfully called on Prime Minister Essid to replace Ben Dhia as minister.
President Beji Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party, does not seem to have recovered a sense of unity within in ranks since the January split. Last week, the director its political committee of Ridha Belhaj resigned, having only occupied the post for only three months. Belhaj’s resignation came on the heels of the resignation, less than a week earlier of the Nidaa Tounes parliamentary bloc’s chairman (whip), Fadhel Ben Omrane, who cited health reasons and stated he “had no control over the deputies.” Ben Omrane also mentioned his inability to reign in absentee deputies and the deputies inability to fulfill their election promises.
Ben Omrane, who remained within the party, also resigned from the ARP’s finance committee just as debates over a major banking bill (which eventually passed) were beginning. The banking bill is the second of two financial reforms (a Central Bank law was barely approved last month) on which a 2.8 billion USD IMF bailout loan is contingent upon.
Further complicating matters, the head of Afek Tounes, Yassine Ibrahim, has unsuccessfully (thus far) advocated for the formation of a new secular parliamentary bloc within the ARP which would exclude Ennahda. Although for once, Ibrahim’s proposal can claim to have an ideological rather than strictly personal motive.