Tunisia’s independents hold the key to restoring trust in public service, politics

Many Tunisians and analysts hope independents can offer an alternative political path and end the country’s economic and social stalemate.
Sunday 20/05/2018
Slim Maherzi, mayor-elect of La Marsa.  (Courtesy of Slim Maherzi)
New faces. Slim Maherzi, mayor-elect of La Marsa. (Courtesy of Slim Maherzi)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s independent mayors and municipal counsellors that were voted into office on May 6 have the chance to restore credibility to public service and give hope to disillusioned youth by improving the lives of local inhabitants, says Slim Maherzi, mayor-elect of La Marsa, a coastal suburb of the capital, Tunis.

“The independents must focus on policies that improve the everyday conditions where people, their children and families live,” said Maherzi.

Maherzi, a physician by training, was a leading figure in a coalition of civic associations that won 20 of the city’s 30 seats, giving it the majority to run the municipality.

“The main argument for voting (for) independents instead of for candidates from the two ruling parties was that the government of the two parties had failed for seven years to bring about change for a better life for most people,” Maherzi said.

“People voted for independents to improve the conditions in places where they live. Independents must strive to respect such promises,” he added.

“The biggest obstacle that could lead independents to fail is to renege on their promises to change the immediate environments of the inhabitants, their families and children,” said Maherzi.

Many Tunisians and analysts see a glimmer of hope in independents, who they hope can offer an alternative political path and end the country’s economic and social stalemate.

Gaining 2,367 seats, 32.9% of the national vote, independents came out on top in the polls, finishing ahead of the Islamist Ennahda party, which received 28.6% of the vote, and its secularist partner in power, Nidaa Tounes, which received 22.1%.

Almost two-thirds of Tunisia’s 5 million eligible voters stayed away from the polling stations, many of them young people. The low turnout was a reflection of widespread disillusionment with the de facto alliance between the Islamist Ennahda movement and the moderate secularist Nidaa Tounes.

The emergence of independents is widely seen as the result of strong mobilisation of non-partisan liberal and leftist civic activists, as well as by elites of the former ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), rather than a sweeping victory of Islamists in the municipal elections.

Abroad, Tunisia has widely been hailed as the poster child of the “Arab spring” but most Tunisians have told opinion pollsters over the past few years that their lives have not improved since 2011 and their country has lost key advantages, including government stability, strong growth and relatively decent living conditions for most of the population. The municipal elections are widely seen as setting the stage for the crucial presidential and parliamentarian elections in 2019.

“One key lesson of this election is that the disaffection with consensus-based politics in place since 2014 must now be scrutinised seriously,” said Issandr El Amrani, who oversees the International Crisis Group’s North Africa Project.

“Otherwise new political forces may campaign against the mixed record of the governing coalition in 2019, including against the principle of compromise and democratic progress,” he added.

La Marsa’s mayor-elect Maherzi said if local authorities led by independents succeed in improving living conditions through an inclusive policy drawing youth, they may give frustrated Tunisians a respite and revive their interest in politics.

Like many winning independent candidates, Maherzi believes local politics, rather than national designs, should be the priority of the newly elected officials. “Pushing independents into forming a national movement will only increase the frustration of the people who voted for them. The independents have a role in implementing a proximity policy that revives the interest of the population by unlocking new local prospects and bringing immediate benefits to local communities,” said Maherzi.

The paediatrician-turned-mayor sees independents as the builders of consensus and compromise in the service of local communities.

“We want to work with everyone who seeks to serve and bring added value to the community. We want to open the municipality to civic society, which is rich with initiatives, proposals and offers to help,” he said.

“We need to be on good terms with the central government, the private sector and entrepreneurs as we need them to improve services and provide jobs to the local population,” he added.

“The main demand of voters is the creation of new jobs. We cannot do that as a municipality because of lack of resources but with good ties with entrepreneurs we can help,” he said.

Maherzi said turning around the situation in the area is difficult and will take time because the budget for this year was already approved by the outgoing authorities and the expectations of the local community are high.

“We have to focus on small projects with rapid impact in improving daily life. Projects for two, three or five years are not for now,” added Mahrezi, who said he aimed to open sports and cultural facilities for youth in various neighbourhoods and claim back all public park space.

“These facilities bring people together and prevent exclusion and marginalisation,” he said.

“We can launch a local daily and a radio station that will be run by youth. We have to include youth and trust them. Young people will not be with you if you keep telling them ‘Yes but’.”

The low turnout of youth in the municipal vote showed that the majority are sceptical of the entire political system, including the government and political parties.

“Most of the voters were retired people. Youth do not care about the parties and politics. As a local authority we should reach out to youth and with that help rebuild the political landscape, hoping that youth and people, in general, regain interest in politics,” Maherzi said.