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Najla Bouden Romdhane | Tunisia’s first woman PM

The geologist has to steady the economy amidst a worsening political crisis

October 02, 2021 10:47 pm | Updated October 09, 2021 10:47 am IST

On September 29, Tunisia’s embattled President Kais Saied, faced with growing criticism of his power grab, made a surprise move by appointing a little-known geologist as the country’s first woman Prime Minister. Mr. Saied had dismissed the Prime Minister and suspended Parliament in July. Ever since he consolidated power in his hands and announced that he would rule by decree, moves his opponents call a coup. With the appointment of Najla Bouden Romdhane, the 63-year-old professor at the Tunis National School of Engineering with practically no political experience, Mr. Saied is seeking to put his rule by decree in an administrative frameworks. In a video message released on September 29 introducing Ms. Bouden to Tunisians, the President said: “This is a historic moment, an honour for Tunisia and a tribute to Tunisian women.” Ms. Bouden did not speak in the video.

When Mr. Saied ousted the government of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi that was backed by the Islamist Ennahda party, the largest bloc in the suspended Parliament, many Tunisians welcomed the move. Mr. Mechichi had faced widespread public criticism over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the country’s economic woes. Tunisia, a country of 11 million people, has one of the highest per capita Covid mortality rates. But when Mr. Saied moved to suspend much of the 2014 Constitution, and awarded himself near total powers, resistance started building up. Tunisia was seen the only country among those hit by Arab street protests in 2010-11 that successfully transitioned into a multi-party democracy from dictatorship. Mr. Saied’s moves raised questions and worries about Tunisia’s transition story.

Angry opposition

If Mr. Saied hoped that the appointment of Ms. Bouden would placate the opposition, he was wrong. The new Prime Minister will not have the backing of Parliament, a Constitutional requirement. Ennahda legislators have asked their leader, Speaker Rached Ghannouchi to convene the Assembly in defiance of President Saied and question the legality of the appointment of Ms. Bouden as the Prime Minister. The influential UGTT labour union has also spoken against Mr. Saied's power grab. But Mr. Saied appears determined to go ahead with his plans and Ms. Bouden emerges as his lieutenant.

Born in the central Kairouan province in 1958, Bouden holds a doctorate in geology. The Paris-educated academic has held several senior positions in Tunisia’s education sector. In 2011, she was appointed Director General in charge of Quality at the Ministry of Higher Education, according to the official TAP news agency. In 2016, she headed the ‘management by objectives unit’ for the implementation of the higher education reform project. Currently, she is serving as the World Bank’s Programme Implementation Officer at the Ministry of Higher Education. According to Turkey’s Anadolu news agency, Ms. Bouden doesn’t have any known political affiliations.

It’s not clear what led Mr. Saïed to pick a university professor for the Prime Minister’s job, nor is there any clarity on Ms. Bouden’s vision for governance. The President’s critics say that by choosing a technocrat with no political experience and popular base, Mr. Saïed could make sure that there’s no challenge to his authority from the Cabinet. Under the Tunisian Constitution, the Prime Minister, the President and the Speaker are the three pillars of the State and the Cabinet is responsible to Parliament. But Mr. Saïed’s decree made it clear that the PM and the Cabinet would be responsible to him. The new Prime Minister’s mandate, according to the President, is to “combat corruption and chaos that pervaded in many state institutions”.

Ms. Bouden’s surprise elevation to the top echelons of power comes at a particularly challenging time. The country’s public debt stands at 88% of GDP. The dinar, it currency, has lost half its value over the past 10 years. Unemployment is high at 18%. The government had initiated talks with the IMF for a bailout, but those discussions were paused after Mr. Saied’s power grab. Domestically, the opposition is trying to mobilise support for a lasting showdown with Mr. Saied and his cherry-picked PM. All these suggest that the North African Arab country’s first woman PM could get the going tough.

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