With Municipal Elections, Tunisia Moves Beyond “Transition”

A Tunisian man sitting in a cafe in Ariana Governorate reads an electoral leaflet on April 28, 2018. On May 6, Tunisians will vote in the country's first free municipal elections since the removal of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his government in 2011. (Sipa USA via AP)

Tunisia will be holding its first municipal elections since the overthrow of Ben Ali’s autocratic regime following the 2011 uprising on May 6. The long-awaited date was announced last month by the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) following what many have described as protracted preparations and negotiations. ISIE, the governmental agency in charge of organizing the elections and referendums, had produced two reports with all relevant details before finally confirming the dates and announcing them to the public. The reports include the timeline, legality, and specificities of the electoral period, and give more detail around the new decentralization law that guarantees and encourages the participatory aspect of local decision-making through the municipal elections.

While the general public will cast their votes on May 6, security forces and soldiers voted on April 29, a first in the country’s modern history after the Parliament voted on their right to vote in 2017. This decision sparked controversy among politicians and legal practitioners, many of whom opposed the alteration on the grounds that it is against the principle of neutrality that security forces and soldiers previously complied with. A total of 2,173 candidate lists were announced by ISIE, among which 350 were presented by Ennahda, the country’s main Islamist party which also holds the most seats in Parliament.

In preparation, Parliament put forward a new law in 2017 requiring every candidate list to respect certain criteria including: gender parity; including one person with a disability; and including at least three people under the age of 35. As a result, ISIE announced that 50 percent of candidates are under the age of 35 and almost half of all candidates are women, a promising and propitious figure.

Undoubtedly, the upcoming local elections in Tunisia mark a new step in the country’s successful transitional period. The two main parties, Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes, forged an alliance after the parliamentary elections in 2014 despite their many political differences, and collectively paved the way for the new law regulating the conditions of the municipal elections, ensuring equality and diversity in the electoral season, and most importantly, fostering the decentralization of participatory democracy. For Tunisian municipalities, these elections are an important step for the implementation of new institutions that can ensure people’s rights to choose the representatives who will serve them the best in their governorates.

Fundamentally, the first and foremost long-term objective of the elections is not to announce one party’s victory over the other, but rather to allow Tunisian citizens to participate and engage in making decisions related to their regional needs, especially during a period marked by economic difficulties, unemployment, and a common loss of faith in the system. Indeed, Tunisians have to believe in these elections, and should cast their votes as a contribution to advancing open, participatory governance and ensuring the autonomy of their local municipalities. And though these are municipal elections and therefore less publicized, they are equally important.

What is also crucial about the upcoming elections is that they will eventually establish the transfer of competencies from state to local boards in each governorate. This will greatly impact the lives of the people, particularly in terms of everyday services, local economies, and municipal institutions.

With the hope and great promise that the coming months will bring, many have criticized the slow progress of the preparatory phase that preceded the final announcement of the election date, which resulted in the elections being postponed several times. Many activists say that one of the reasons that led to disagreements over the final date is that members of the former regime were trying to stall the progress of the transitional period and democratization efforts, and ultimately the success story of the Arab Spring in Tunisia.

As far as ISIE is concerned, the time it took to confirm the official dates is explained by a lengthy pre-election preparation phase that included an eventual consensus between all parties to support the devolvement of power from the capital Tunis to the municipalities. Additionally, the drafting of the new decentralization law, the training of domestic elections’ observers, and the continuously-changing political scene—notably within the prime minister’s cabinet—also played a significant role in the delay. It is also likely that concern over the possibility of a low voter turnout spurred the government to postpone elections in order to give more time for the public to register at their local councils and therefore increase participation rates.

Between May 7 and 9 election results will be announced to the public, marking the beginning of a new stage in the country’s transition, and ensuring, for the first time in recent Tunisian history, the full and active participation of citizens across the country in local matters that were once either neglected or managed from the capital. The aftermath of the elections, however, may also mean possible political discord between the winners and other candidates, and slow or little change in the management of local affairs.

On one hand, many political analysts say that what matters most is how the elected officials will go about their duties and implement what they have called “impossible agenda,” especially with limited financial and human resources and insignificant state subventions. On the other hand, voters are expecting a local revolution of sorts in which those who are elected are only concerned with budgets, and certainly not about political advancement. This is where the actual challenge facing the municipal representatives lies.

In terms of the country’s democratic transition, these elections will certainly give a new push for transitional development and ensure the inclusion and fair engagement of citizens in national decision-making processes, and the local affairs that they once were not part of. The citizens of each of the 24 governorates will now be able to directly influence their local councils to make changes relative to economic empowerment, health services, education, infrastructure, and more. This will also mean being one step closer to the realization of a fully democratic and just system that is no longer in “transition,” which will then open doors for further and more ambitious development plans, and a more favorable place for domestic as well as foreign investment.

Ala Oueslati is a Tunisian activist and a fellow of Women Deliver. He tweets @Alaoueslat.