TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A forum of political parties on Saturday chose the industry minister as Tunisia's next prime minister, set to replace the Islamist-led government with technocrats in what's been a faltering transition to democracy.
The Mehdi Jomaa, a 50-year-old independent who had abandoned a career in the private sector, won the vote to head a transition government after weeks of contentious debate by 21 political parties, dubbed the "national dialogue" meant to pull Tunisia out of its impasse. Jomaa has three weeks to form a government, which will prepare for presidential and legislative elections next year. No date has been set.
The Islamist-led government, headed by Ali Larayedh of the moderate Ennahda Party, had agreed to step down as the North African nation plunged into a political crisis after the assassination last July of a leftist opponent —the second such killing in six months. The weekend vote was seen as a last-ditch effort to pull Tunisia out of its political impasse.
The Tunisian revolution in January 2011, in which autocratic leader Zine Abedine Ben Ali was chased into exile, triggered what is known as the Arab Spring, pushing old guard dictators from power in other Arab countries. However, Tunisia's hopes for renewal quickly foundered on soaring unemployment and rising terrorism.
Houcine Abassi, head of the powerful UGTT union and spokesman for the national dialogue, said that Jomaa and his new government must quickly move on critical subjects like the economy, social issues and the fight against terrorism.
The new government must also come up with "measures to guarantee honest and transparent elections," Abassi said.
However, a leftist opposition party, the Popular Front — whose two members were killed — quickly cast doubt on the ability of Jomaa to carry out any such tasks, saying Jomaa's government will lack consensus. Party spokesman Hamma Hammami pointed to Jomaa's slim margin in Saturday's vote. Jomaa garnered but nine of the 21 potential votes. Seven parties abstained, two voted for the runner-up and three were absent.
Those in the governing coalition headed by Ennahda "were looking for a voice that allows them to stay in power," Hammami said, noting Jomaa's status as industry minister.
Jomaa had no immediate comment.
Jomaa, an engineer by training, had headed the aeronautic and defense division of Aerospace, a subsidiary of the French group Total. He entered the government saying he wanted to be useful to his country and "contribute to this delicate phase of democratic transition."
The process of choosing a prime minister to guide the country toward new elections has been acrimonious from the outset. The national dialogue forum was suspended Nov. 4 and only restarted Saturday in what was a last chance to salvage the process.
Another major task in Tunisia's democratic transition is the writing of a new constitution, being carried out in fits and starts by a provisional parliament. However, a roadmap for the transitional period calls for the constitution to be finished in a month.
Two Tunisia's facing each other off — one secular, the other clinging to the country's Muslim roots — have fed the contentiousness that led to the months-long impasse.
"I hope now that a new constitution allying democracy and Islam will make the democratic transition a success," the Ennahda Party's founder, Rachid Ghannouchi, said at a news conference, echoing the divide. In this way, he said, "our country serves as a candle that lights the region."
Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.