November 13, 2019 / 10:23 AM / a month ago

Tunisia's divided parliament attempts to choose a speaker

TUNIS, Nov 13 (Reuters) - Tunisia’s new parliament opened on Wednesday with a session to elect a speaker, a task likely to prove difficult in a deeply divided chamber but which will provide insight into wider efforts to form a government.

The moderate Islamist Ennahda came first in last month’s election, but took only 52 of 217 seats forcing it to compromise to win majority support for its preferred speaker and prime minister.

However, its efforts to build a coalition with several rival parties have so far come to nothing and Tunisia continues with a caretaker government under the existing prime minister, Youssef Chahed.

Wednesday’s election for speaker represents a big test for Ennahda, which was banned before Tunisia’s 2011 revolution but has since played a big role in several coalition governments.

It has nominated its veteran leader Rached Ghannouchi, who ran for elected office for the first time in last month’s vote, but he faces competition from two rival politicians.

Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution splits power between the newly elected President Kais Saied and a government that passes legislation through the parliament.

Friday is the deadline for Ennahda, as the biggest party in parliament, to name its nominee for prime minister, starting the clock on a two-month process for that person to form a government.

Ennahda has negotiated with the Attayar party and the Achaab party to win support for Ghannouchi as speaker before starting formal coalition talks.

However, they have refused to back Ghannouchi unless Ennahda first agrees with them on an independent nominee for prime minister and Attayar is fielding its own candidate, senior party official Gazi Chaouachi, for the post of speaker.

“If they don’t support us today in parliament, Attayar and Achaab parties will likely be outside the next coalition government,” said Imed Khmiri, a senior Ennahda official.

That would leave Ennahda seeking support elsewhere, possibly from the Heart of Tunisia party led by media magnate Nabil Karoui, the defeated candidate in last month’s presidential election.

It and Ennahda have presented themselves as ideological rivals and have both previously ruled out entering into coalition. However, sources said Heart of Tunisia was considering backing Ghannouchi as parliament speaker. (Reporting By Tarek Amara Editing by Angus McDowall and Gareth Jones)

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