Tunisia Panel Vets 21 Candidates for Premier Job as Talks Start

The panel responsible for choosing candidates for the job of Tunisia’s prime minister is vetting 21 names as politicians push ahead with a plan to end a political standoff delaying the transition to democracy.

The five-member committee is set to present a shortlist to the heads of political parties “by the end of the day,” Maya Jribi, one of the members, said by phone. She declined to identify any of the candidates.

Tunisian parties started national talks on Oct. 25 to form a non-partisan government after militant attacks and political assassinations of secular-leaning opposition leaders increased pressure on the Islamist-led Cabinet to step down. The turmoil has deterred investors and hampered the country’s economic recovery more than two years after a popular uprising ended Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s autocratic rule.

“The democratic transition is taking too long,” Lotfi Zitoun, a senior official in the Islamist Ennahda party, which leads the current government, said in an interview in the capital Tunis. “It has shaken investors’ confidence.”

The coming Cabinet will oversee parliamentary elections, according to a road map brokered by Tunisia’s main labor union. Talks would run in parallel to complete a new constitution. Elyes Fakhfakh, the outgoing finance minister, said in an interview on Oct. 12 that steps allowing the government led by Prime Minister Ali Larayedh to resign may be concluded by mid-November.

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Tunisia’s transition turned from the envy of neighbors such as Egypt, where a similar revolt sparked bouts of violence and unrest, to a crisis after the assassination of opposition politicians Chocri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in February and July. The killings prompted opposition parties to withdraw from the interim constituent assembly and challenge Ennahda’s leadership.

The turmoil also triggered a two-level downgrade in Tunisia’s credit rating by Standard & Poor’s in August to B, five levels below investment grade. The ratings company warned that international financial support could wane. The government lowered its target for economic growth this year to 3.6 percent from 4 percent, Fakhfakh said in Washington.

“It is certain that a continuation of the political deadlock and the weakening of the state on the security and economic level could trigger clashes in the areas where the central authority is absent,” Mourad Hattab, risk manager at Societe Tunisienne de Banque, said in an interview in Tunis.

Clashes between security forces and unidentified gunmen killed nine people on Oct. 23 in Sidi Bouzid, where the self-immolation of a fruit vendor to protest poverty and government neglect triggered the first uprising of the so-called Arab Spring.

Larayedh’s government has blamed the Ansar Al Shariah extremists for the assassination of opposition leaders and for a string of attacks on police forces.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jihen Laghmari in Tunis at jlaghmari@bloomberg.net; Maher Chmaytelli in Dubai at mchmaytelli@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net; Stephen Voss at sev@bloomberg.net

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