Talks on choosing a new Tunisian prime minister have been suspended indefinitely after political leaders once again failed to agree on a leader to steer the country out of crisis.
"We have decided to suspend the national dialogue until there are favourable grounds for talks to succeed," said Houcine Abassi, head of the UGTT union federation mediating the crisis, late Monday.
"We didn't reach a consensus on the person who will lead the government. We tried to resolve the differences but there was not consensus," he added.
Tensions that gripped Tunisia since veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled in a 2011 uprising were heightened by the murders of opposition politicians Chokri Belaid in February and Mohamed Brahmi in July.
The ruling Islamists and the opposition opened hard-won talks on October 25 to form a government of independents, draft a much-delayed constitution and prepare for elections as part of a roadmap with a tight timetable.
Under the plan, a new premier was to have been named on Saturday, a week after the talks began, but when that failed a new deadline was set for Monday at noon.
Failure to reach a consensus
As the latest meeting got under way the moderate ruling Islamist Ennahda party and the opposition warned failure to reach a consensus by the end of the day would spell the demise of the so-called national dialogue launched last month.
The two frontrunners for premier are opposition-backed 79-year-old Mohamed Ennaceur, and Ahmed Mestiri, an 88-year-old supported by Ennahda and its allies.
Both are well respected and served under the late Habib Bourguiba, who led the fight for Tunisia's independence and served as its first president for three decades from 1957.
The opposition said Mestiri is too old and would be a puppet in the hands of Ennahda, which in turn insists he can strike a balance between the rival sides.
"We don't see any alternative to Ahmed Mestiri," Ennahda chief Rached Ghannouchi said after the failed talks.
The ruling coalition "made the dialogue fail. They are looking for any means to stay in power", countered Hamma Hammami, a representative of the opposition National Salvation Front coalition.
Earlier, the coalition "offered to drop Ennaceur as its candidate and has proposed other names but Ennahda and its coalition partner Ettakatol have rejected them", said opposition figure Mourad Amdouni.
Another opposition member, Samir Bettaieb, had also warned that "the negotiations will be doomed if no consensus is reached today [Tuesday]".
Talks with the opposition
The government and opposition agreed that Islamist radicals, oppressed under Ben Ali and whose influence has grown since the uprising, are behind a wave of violence, including the killings of Belaid and Brahmi.
The opposition has demanded the government's resignation and the formation of a cabinet of independents, accusing the current line-up of failing to rein in jihadists.
After months of stalling, Ennahda opened talks with the opposition in line with the roadmap and prime minister Ali Larayedh has said he will step down as long as the timetable is respected.
Despite the political turmoil, Finance Minister Elyes Fakhfakh said on Monday that he expects 4% growth for the economy in 2014.
But tensions remain high, with security stepped up following two botched suicide attacks in tourist resorts, and the killing of nine police officers in October.
The government linked Tunisia's armed jihadists to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but said it lacks the resources to combat them.
On Sunday, the presidency ordered an eight-month extension of a state of emergency, which has been renewed repeatedly. – AFP