Tunisia’s long-delayed municipal vote turns focus to local politics

The biggest obstacle to attracting new voters is their concern that participation could lead to unwanted scrutiny or hassle.
Sunday 28/01/2018
Getting out the vote. Employees of the ISIE election body work at an outreach booth at a shopping mall in Tunis, last August. (AFP)
Getting out the vote. Employees of the ISIE election body work at an outreach booth at a shopping mall in Tunis, last August. (AFP)

Tunis - Political parties are looking to back independent candidates in Tunisia’s upcoming municipal elections but strict regulations and fear of government backlash have discouraged many from taking part.

“The first obstacle is assembling a candidacy list that by law respects parity between men and women and other stringent conditions,” said Hamdi Sabri, an independent candidate in Manouba, outside Tunis.

The biggest obstacle to attracting new voters is their concern that participation could lead to unwanted scrutiny or hassle, he said.

“When I approached locals who carry influence with voters, like cafe owners, traders or taxi drivers, to be part of my list, they said, ‘I support you but I cannot be on your list,’” Sabri said. “Despite democracy and freedoms, people still fear the power of the government and the parties in power.”

“They told me: ‘Why should I put myself in trouble by joining you? Who guarantees me that the authorities will not come to check whether I paid my taxes, respected the municipal construction code or other things?’”

Tunisia’s election law stipulates that municipal elections — the first since Tunisia’s revolution in 2011 — impose strict limits on the number of candidates a given party can nominate per municipality. Some parties, to widen their electoral base of support, are including independent candidates in their lists.

The election law also includes measures to ensure parity between men and women and empower other minority groups, such as those with disabilities.

While the law has been praised for helping promote equal representation, it serves as another hurdle for prospective candidates in rural communities, where women are less likely to participate in politics.

“My experience has taught me that these measures are benefiting the two biggest parties,” said Sabri, referring to the secularist Nidaa Tounes and Islamist Ennahda parties.

Sabri was previously a local official with Nidaa Tounes but left the party after it announced its alliance with Ennahda before the 2014 presidential elections. He said “the repeated delays of the municipal elections… show that “the elites in power fear the resurgence of new elites at the local level.”

Originally scheduled for October 2016, Tunisia’s local elections have been repeatedly delayed due to bureaucratic problems.

The first stage of the elections, scheduled for May 6, will have 7,000 municipal councillors elected from around the country. Polls to select regional and inter-regional councils are to follow. For the first time, police, military and security services will be allowed to participate in the polls.

Many Tunisians said they hope that decentralising power would address one of the country’s most persistent problems — regional inequality. It has given rise to mass unemployment and cries of government neglect in many rural areas, particularly among youth.

The Tunisian Constitution, approved after the 2011 uprising that toppled former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, expanded the prerogative of local authorities, granting them constitutional power similar to the parliament and judiciary.

Advocates of decentralisation say the long overdue municipal elections could bring in a sweeping change in the country by creating opportunities and initiatives at the local level.

If successful, the elections will go a long way towards transferring power to local communities in Tunisia, which, despite seven years of democracy, has one of the most centralised governments in the Arab region.

As inequality persists between the relatively prosperous coastal regions and the rest of the country, this has increasingly become a political demand around the country but the success of local development goals depends on the goodwill of the ruling political elites, intellectuals and activists at large.

Regarding the upcoming vote, some intellectuals expressed fear that giving too much power to local communities could lead to tribal and regional antagonism, while others were wary of local authorities’ ability to collect and distribute additional revenue needed for development programmes.

However, most politicians and intellectuals agreed that delaying the transfer of power to local entities would worsen the impasse of Tunisia’s democratic transition.

“The deadlock of Tunisia’s democratic transition is induced from the current rules of the political game that benefits the elites but plunges the most number of Tunisians into despair as they are seeing no light at the end of the tunnel,” said Moncef Djaziri, a researcher at Lausanne University.

On January 21, more than 40 prominent intellectuals and artists began an initiative urging voters to support anti-Islamist forces ahead of the local elections, saying it could be “the last hope” to alter the “political landscape.”

Tunisia’s coalition government includes the secularist Nidaa Tounes party and the Islamist Ennahda.

For the local elections, 11 political groups, including Al Moubadara (Initiative), led by former Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane, and Al Badil (Alternative), headed by former Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, agreed to back independent candidates in 48 constituencies, which account for 40% of the approximately 5 million registered voters.

Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes, which are rivals in the local polls, announced that almost half the candidates on their lists were “independents.”

Candidates are to begin submitting lists for approval

February 15-22. Campaigning is to begin in March and military and police personnel are to vote

April 29.

If successful, the elections will go a long way towards transferring power to local communities in Tunisia.

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