For Tunisia, the stakes are higher than just local polls

The will usher in a new phase in Tunisia’s democratic transition, giving much more power to local government.
Saturday 05/05/2018
A Tunisian man waits for a bus in front of a municipal elections awareness campaign poster in Tunis on May 4. Arabic reads: "We vote for ourselves and our children…we are all present with our voices." (AFP)
A Tunisian man waits for a bus in front of a municipal elections awareness campaign poster in Tunis on May 4. Arabic reads: "We vote for ourselves and our children…we are all present with our voices." (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia goes to the polls on Sunday to choose among 57,000 candidates who are competing for seats in 350 municipalities. But for the small North African country credited with the only successful democratic transition of the “Arab spring,” the stakes are higher than just local politics.

The overriding concern is likely to be the turnout rate. The rate of participation by police and army voters last week, which stood at a mere 12%, is not necessarily indicative of this Sunday’s likely number of voters. It has nonetheless triggered concern that too many Tunisians among the country’s 5,3 million registered voters could stay home on election day. Most polls show a high level of disillusionment about public life and politics.

There is hope, however, that the number of fresh and diverse faces in the 2,000 lists of candidates in the municipal elections could be catalyst for participation, especially that more than half of the candidates are under 35 years of age and that almost half of the candidates are at least formally “independent,” bearing less the burden of party affiliation. Most of the political parties, especially the ones which have exercised power since 2011, are struggling to regain voters’ trust.

Legal parity requirements also mean that nearly half of the candidates are women. Gender parity at the level of candidates could boost the female turnout rate. Women voters made a big difference in the country’s 2014 legislative and presidential elections, shifting the balance in favour of the moderate secularist Nidaa Tounes against its Islamist competitors.

This consideration was clear to Tunisia’s main Islamist party Ennahda this time as it tried to put on a women-friendly face. It fielded many unveiled females candidates, especially in urban areas with a more liberal political makeup.

For the two main parties, Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda, the stakes are higher than just these elections. While presenting candidates on almost all municipal slates, their eyesight is already set on the 2019 general elections. Results are expected to give an indication about their ability to mobilise support among voters. It might also be a determining factor in whether their current partnership in power continues.

Their top leaders came down with all their weight on the campaign trail. Even President Beji Caid Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed took the unusual step of calling on voters to cast their ballots for Nidaa Tounes.

The Sunday vote will usher in a new phase in Tunisia’s democratic transition, giving much more power to local government.

The wider prerogatives of municipal councils were spelt out in a new legal code adopted by Parliament in late April. But the bill was adopted too late to attract the attention it deserves.

Many analysts have lauded the change from a hyper-centralised authoritarian tradition where the central government dictated all decisions to local municipalities (a practice followed by Tunisian governments since independence) to a more decentralised system allowing regions to manage their own affairs more freely.

Some experts, however, have been critical of populist-inclined politicians who are creating unrealistic expectations in the minds of disgruntled local populations just for the sake of political expediency and the atrophy of central authority.

The municipal elections will raise many of the thorny socio-economic issues left unaddressed since the 2011 uprising which toppled the regime of  former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Unemployment and underdevelopment problems, especially in the country’s interior, remain a source of instability and frequent protests. Job opportunities in such parts of the country remain limited and young people continue to attempt to illegally leave the country aboard rickety boats at the risk of their own lives.

Even if endowed with wider prerogatives, municipal councils will have limited budgets and will not be able to change much of the general socio-economic situation impacting their needy and impatient populations. Furthermore, they cannot count on the cash-strapped central government to bail them out. The bid spending days that followed 2011 are gone.

After the final results are announced on May 9, the new municipal councils will have to live with austerity as they exercise their powers to improve the quality of life of citizens and change things for the better.