Concerns over voter turnout ahead of Tunisia’s municipal elections

Tunisian election officials say they hope for turnout of 60-70% in the elections but polling indicates turnout could be as low as 30%.
Tuesday 01/05/2018
A man looks at lists of candidates for the upcoming municipal elections in Tunisia's central city of Kasserine on April 23. (AFP)
A man looks at lists of candidates for the upcoming municipal elections in Tunisia's central city of Kasserine on April 23. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia's Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) registered low voter turnout among security services in early voting in municipal elections, raising concerns of voter apathy ahead of general voting on May 6.

Turnout among army and police personnel during the separate vote April 29 was 12%, a disappointing figure to many with high hopes for Tunisia’s long-delayed local polls.

They are Tunisia’s first since the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and have been hailed as a major step in the country’s democratic transition. A local government code, passed by parliament on April 24, lays out the transfer of competencies to local councils, municipalities and districts.

To ensure the de-centralisation process is successful, analysts said solid voter participation is critical.

“Strong voter turnout, followed by meaningful devolution of authority to Tunisia’s regions and localities, should strengthen Tunisians’ confidence in governance at a grass-roots level,” wrote Charles Dunne in a report for the Arab Centre in Washington. “Alternatively, low turnout or a significant protest vote could harm perceptions of the legitimacy and authority of government.”

Election officials say they hope for turnout of 60-70% in the elections but polling indicates turnout could be as low as 30%. The low turnout among security officials, who were voting for the first time after the lifting of a long-time ban, is a worrying sign, analysts said.

Tunisian columnist Amine Massoud, writing in Al-Arab, questioned whether the trend among military and security personnel was unique to their professions or reflective of the general public’s lack of interest.

“Is abstention confined to military and security actors considering the nature of their sensitive sectors, which would like to remain above the political and ideological fray or is the issue that of a general voting pattern that is related to a series of collective disappointments and wasted national opportunities?” wrote Massoud.

Army and police members had been banned from voting for decades and many argue they should be exempt from elections to maintain neutrality. In January 2017, legislation was passed granting security personnel the right to vote in local elections, but they are still barred from attending campaign events and voting in national elections.

Most security unions encouraged members to participate in the municipal elections but the powerful National Union of Interior Security Forces called for a boycott.

“The security institution is at the disposal of the people and it must be neutral, with this vote it will not be,” said Chokri Hamad, spokesman for the National Union of Interior Security Forces.

Despite the low turnout among security services, some are hoping renewed interest among young Tunisians could bring many to the polls.

The Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) said 50% of registered candidates were under the age 35. Many of the candidates signed up as independents, a reflection of growing disillusionment with the country’s two ruling parties — Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda.

Among the 2,074 electoral lists vying in the country’s 350 municipalities, 860 independent lists are competing against 1,055 party-affiliated lists and 159 other lists representing coalitions of parties, said ISIE President Mohamed Tlili Mansri.