Independents are the wild card in Tunisia’s municipal elections
TUNIS - As campaigning gears up for Tunisia’s municipal elections, independent candidates are attracting considerable attention because of their numbers and diverse backgrounds.
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 Mohamed Tlili Mansri, president of the Independent High Authority for Elections.
The large number of independent lists is seen as a crucial factor that could solidify Tunisia’s democratic transition. The May 6 vote is the first step in an unprecedented expansion of democratic rule to the local level. Campaigning began April 14.
The robust showing of independents could lead to increased voter turnout.
Recent polls projected turnout to be around 30%. Electoral authorities have said they are hoping for a 60-70% participation rate.
The vote comes at a time when many Tunisians say the main political parties have failed to address the country’s woes, including slow economic growth, high inflation and widespread unemployment.
However, independents must first win over sceptics who see them as Trojan horses for the Islamist Ennahda party, which is suspected by secularist opponents and allies alike of seeking to extend its power in rural Tunisia as part of an “ultimate plan” to turn the traditionally secular and Westernised Arab country into a religious state.
The complicated voting system makes reliance on “independents” as proxies an attractive option for a political party with huge financial resources.
However, low turnout or widespread protest votes could undermine the legitimacy of the establishment and the democratic process, making it more challenging for Tunisia to advance along its democratic path towards 2019, when parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled.
Independents faced many hurdles in getting candidates validated: Tunisia’s election laws include measures requiring parity between men and women and representation by minority groups, such as those with disabilities.
While the law has been praised for promoting equal representation, it is an obstacle for independent lists in rural communities, where women are less likely to take part in politics.
Tunisia’s constitution, approved in 2014, decentralises power and resources to benefit local authorities. The municipal elections are to be followed by local and regional polls.
The over-centralisation that characterised post-independence Tunisia led to inequality in social and economic development between the more developed coastal areas and the more marginal regions of the country.
Tunis, Sousse and Sfax account for 56% of Tunisia’s 11 million people, 92% of the country’s manufacturing enterprises and 85% of GDP, World Bank data state.
The municipal elections are expected to rekindle the dormant political and ideological rivalry between Ennahda and the secularist Nidaa Tounes, which was founded by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and is headed by his son Hafedh.
Though the parties are the main partners in a coalition government led by Nidaa Tounes’ Youssef Chahed, Nidaa Tounes leaders have said they would campaign against Ennahda to stress their different secularist agenda.
Nidaa Tounes spokesman Mongi Harbaoui assailed independents as “disguised” candidates of Ennahda seeking to disperse the voters who favour liberal and secularist candidates.
“The greatest danger comes from the so-called independents… who have forged secret alliances with Ennahda with the aim of scattering the votes and breaking up the unity of the voters of the centre democratic political forces to monopolise the local power and achieve the plan of building the extremist Muslim Brotherhood state,” Harbaoui said in a statement.
Ennahda said it fielded half of its candidates in the 350 lists under the party banner and denied that independents have links to the party.
“Ennahda is a force of unity, entente and collective participation to serve the Tunisian people. The elections must remain democratic and civilised and the competition must be over programmes related to the daily lives of the citizens,” said Adelkarim Harouni, a party leader.
Analysts said while Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes would overwhelm the 20 other parties contesting the polls, they could find independent candidates more difficult to beat, especially if independents demonstrate that they are distinct from Ennahda.
Weak economic growth, unemployment, the declining value of the Tunisian dinar and the downgrading of the country’s credit rating will be the main arguments against the ruling parties.
“The independents are capable of pulling off a surprise victory in the municipal elections,” said political analyst Walid Ahmed Ferchichi. “The main factor in winning votes in such elections is the proximity and popularity in the areas where the candidates live and that benefits the independents.”