Tunisia faced political deadlock after Sunday’s election delivered a fragmented parliament and no obvious path to forming a government that must urgently address chronic economic and fiscal problems.
Sunday’s exit polls showed the moderate Islamist Ennahda as the largest party, but its modest projected vote share means it needs to bring other parties into any workable coalition.
“The task will be difficult and complicated to reach an agreement to form a government,” said Yamina Zoglami, a senior Ennahda official.
Several Ennahda’s rivals said they will not join a government it leads and Tunisians face the prospect of protracted negotiations and the possibility of another election if no coalition can be agreed.
The parliamentary vote comes amid a separate presidential election in which one of two candidates who advanced to next Sunday’s run-off vote is detained on corruption charges, entailing a possible challenge to the result.
Eight years after ending autocratic rule, many Tunisians are disillusioned by the failure of repeated coalition governments to address economic problems and their rejection of major parties threatens a new upheaval.
If official results confirm Ennahda’s first place, it has two months to form a coalition. After that the president can ask a politician of his choice to try. If that also fails Tunisians go back to the ballot box.
Next week’s presidential run-off pits Kais Saied, an independent, against Nabil Karoui, a media mogul detained on corruption charges he denies. If he loses, he might appeal to overturn the result citing detention.
Speaking on Sunday, another senior Ennahda official, Abdelkarim Haloumi, said he hoped a new parliamentary election could be avoided and the party would attempt to build a coalition from among parties opposed to corruption.
A governing coalition requires 109 seats in government. Ennahda’s vote share projected by the exit poll would translate into about 40 seats, polling company Sigma Conseil said.
It and Karoui’s Heart of Tunisia, which exit polls projected as coming second with about 33 seats, ruled out coalition before the election. A spokesman for Karoui repeated that after Sunday’s vote, calling it “a red line”.
Attayar, another party on course for more than a dozen seats in parliament, said it would not enter government with Ennahda, with leader Mohamed Abbou saying “we will be a responsible and serious opposition”.
The conservative Karama said it would enter coalition negotiations with Ennahda if asked.
Any political paralysis entails new risks for a fragile economy that has never really recovered from the shock of the 2011 revolution that ended decades of autocracy, introduced democracy and set off the “Arab spring”.
Urged on by the International Monetary Fund, Tunisia is trying to rein in a public debt that swelled as political leaders sought to buy goodwill with rampant state employment.
There is unemployment of 15% nationally and 30% in some cities, inflation remains high at 6.8% and tourism is only this year recovering from two jihadist attacks in 2015.
Economic pain has contributed to an anti-establishment mood among Tunisian voters, who punished major parties in the first round of the presidential election last month.
Exit polls showed Ennahda coming first on Sunday, its projected vote share of 17.5% represented a decline from the last parliamentary election in 2014, when it had 27.5%.