What do this week's elections mean for Tunisia?

What do this week's elections mean for Tunisia?
Analysis: Tunisia takes the next step towards democracy with decision-making devolved to local councils. While little may change day-to-day, municipal elections are the legacy of the revolution, writes Ala Oueslati.
5 min read
01 May, 2018
Tunisian military personnel are permitted to vote for the first time [Getty]
On May 6, Tunisia will be holding its first municipal elections since the overthrow of Ben Ali's autocratic regime in the 2010-11 uprising.

The long-awaited date was announced last month by the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE), following what many have described as protracted preparations and negotiations.

ISIE, a government agency, had produced two reports with all relevant details before finally confirming the dates and announcing them to the public. The reports detail the timeline, legality, and specificities of the electoral period, and give more information about the new decentralisation law encouraging taking part in local decision-making.

While the general public will cast their votes on Sunday, security forces and soldiers have been able to vote since April 29 - a first in the country's modern history, after parliament approved their right to vote in 2017. It was a decision which sparked controversy among politicians and legal practitioners, many of whom opposed the change on grounds that it was against the principle of neutrality with which troops had previously complied.
50 percent of candidates are under the age of 35 and almost half of all candidates are women

A total of 2,173 candidate lists were announced by ISIE, among which 350 were presented by Ennahdha, the country's main Islamist party, and the largest party in parliament.

Every candidate list is required to respect certain criteria including gender parity; including one person with a disability; and at least three people under the age of 35.

As a result, ISIE announced that 50 percent of candidates are under the age of 35 and almost half of all candidates are women, a promising and propitious figure.

Undoubtedly, the upcoming local elections in Tunisia mark a new step in the country's transition period. The two main parties, Ennahdha and Nidaa Tounes, forged an alliance after the parliamentary elections in 2014 despite their many political differences, and collectively paved the way for the new law regulating the conditions of the municipal elections, ensuring equality and diversity in the electoral season, and most importantly, fostering the decentralisation of participatory democracy.

For Tunisian municipalities, these elections are an important step in the building of new institutions that can ensure people's right to choose the representatives who will serve them the best in their governorates.

Fundamentally, the first and foremost long-term objective of these elections is not to announce one party's victory over the other, but rather to allow Tunisian citizens to participate and engage in making decisions related to their regional needs, especially during a period marked by economic difficulties, unemployment, and a common loss of faith in the system.

Crucially, Tunisians have to believe in these elections, and should cast their votes as a contribution to advancing open, participatory governance and ensuring the autonomy of their local municipalities. And though these are municipal elections and therefore less publicised, they are equally as important as any national polls.

This election will eventually establish the transfer of competencies from state to local boards in each governorate. This will greatly affect the lives of everyday people, particularly in terms of public services, local economies and municipal institutions.

With the hope of what the coming months may bring, many have criticised the slowness of organising the election, with the poll postponed several times. Activists say members of the former regime have been stalling progress in the transition towards democracy, ultimately attempting to undermine the success of the Arab Spring in Tunisia.

ISIE had to work slowly to build consensus between all parties to support the devolvement of power from the capital Tunis to the municipalities.

Additionally, the drafting of the new decentralisation law, the training of domestic election observers, and the continuously changing political scene - notably within the prime minister's cabinet - all played a significant role in the delay. It is also likely that concern over low voter turnout encouraged the government to delay elections to allow more time for voter registration.

The results will be announced between May 7 and 9, marking a new stage in the country's transition story, and ensuring, for the first time in recent Tunisian history, the full and active participation of citizens across the country in local matters that were once either neglected or managed from the capital.
In terms of the country's democratic transition, these elections will certainly give a new push for transitional development

The aftermath of the elections, however, may also mean political discord between the winners and losers, and slow or little real change in the management of local affairs.

On one hand, many political analysts say that what matters most is how the elected officials go about their duties and implement an "impossible agenda", especially with limited financial and human resources. On the other, voters are expecting a local revolution of sorts - in which those who are elected are only concerned with budgets, and certainly not about political advancement. This is where the actual challenge facing the municipal representatives lies.

In terms of the country's democratic transition, these elections will certainly give a new push for transitional development and ensure the inclusion and fair engagement of citizens in national decision-making processes, and the local affairs that they once were not part of.

Citizens in each of the 24 governorates will now be able to directly influence their local councils to make changes relative to economic empowerment, health services, education, infrastructure, and more. This will also mean being one step closer to the realisation of a fully democratic and just system no longer in "transition" - which will then open doors for more ambitious development plans, and a more favourable place for domestic and foreign investment. 

Ala Oueslati is an award-winning public speaker and blogger focused on human rights in northern Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @AlaOueslat