Tunisian leader names new PM with little experience at crisis moment

Newly appointed Prime Minister Najla Bouden Romdhane poses for a picture during her meeting with Tunisia's President Kais Saied in Tunis.
Newly appointed Prime Minister Najla Bouden Romdhane poses for a picture during her meeting with Tunisia's President Kais Saied in Tunis.PHOTO: REUTERS

TUNIS (REUTERS) - President Kais Saied named a geologist with little government experience as Tunisia's first woman prime minister on Wednesday (Sept 29) amid a crisis following his seizure of sweeping powers and with public finances close to breaking point.

He asked Najla Bouden Romdhane, a little-known professor of geophysics who implemented World Bank projects at the education ministry, to form a government as quickly as possible, prompting a surge in Tunisian bond prices.

Elected in 2019, Saied has been under mounting domestic and international pressure to name a government after he dismissed the prime minister, suspended parliament and assumed executive authority in July in moves his foes call a coup.

Last week, he suspended most of the constitution, saying he could rule by decree during an "exceptional" period with no set ending, calling into question democratic gains after Tunisia's 2011 revolution that triggered the Arab Spring protests.

Speaking in an online video, Saied said Bouden's appointment honoured Tunisian women and asked her to propose a cabinet in the coming hours or days "because we have lost a lot of time".

The new government should confront corruption and respond to the demands and dignity of Tunisians in all fields, including health, transport and education, he added.

Women have only rarely held senior political roles in Arab countries.

In Tunisia, Saied has also appointed a woman, Nadia Akacha, as chief of staff, his closest and most powerful aide.

Bouden is likely to have less direct power than previous prime ministers under the 2014 constitution, however, after Saied said last week that during the emergency period the government would be responsible to the president.

Crisis

Much of the political elite, including most parties in the suspended parliament and the powerful UGTT labour union, have said they oppose Saied's power grab and major Western donors have urged him to restore normal constitutional order.

Tunisia faces a rapidly looming crisis in public finances after years of economic stagnation were aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic and political infighting.

Government bonds made their best gains in a year on the news after a significant sell-off since Saied's intervention, along with pressure on the cost of insuring against default.

"The key is the possibility of IMF support," said Viktor Szabo, an emerging markets portfolio manager at ABRDN in London.

The new government urgently needs financial support for the budget and debt repayments after Saied's changes put talks with the International Monetary Fund on hold.

"It is a positive sign that a woman will lead the government. I hope she will immediately start saving the country from the spectre of bankruptcy. She should quickly look at the problems of Tunisians," said Amin Ben Salem, a banker in Tunis.

There was no immediate reaction from the labour union or political parties to Bouden's appointment.

However, parliament members may challenge the legality of any government appointed without consent of the suspended chamber.

The presidency said Saied had spoken with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and that he had reiterated "his determination to enforce the law and impose its full respect".

A senior Tunisian politician told Reuters last week the new prime minister would face a daunting inbox as most government work had ground to a halt over the past two months and a vast array of files needed urgent attention.

Saied has replaced numerous officials throughout the administration but pledged to uphold rights and freedoms. He has said he will appoint a committee to amend the 2014 constitution.

In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a phone call with Saied on Wednesday, stressed the importance of Tunisia's democratic achievements for its stability, her spokesman said.

"The talks focused on the domestic political situation in Tunisia and bilateral relations. The chancellor paid tribute to Tunisia's democratic achievements in the past," her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said in a statement.

"She stressed the importance of the democratic acquis for the country's stability and well-being. A return to parliamentary democracy in dialogue with all political actors was essential," Seibert added.