On May 6, 2018, 8.5 million Tunisians were called to elect 7,280 councilors in 350 municipalities, in free and fair elections for the first time in the history of their country. After the legislative and presidential elections of 2014, the municipal elections, postponed four times since 2015, are the last stage of the electoral process of post-revolution Tunisia. With these elections, democratic transition is finally getting anchored at the local level.
The new Code on Local Authorities adopted on Apr 27, 2018, provides a certain degree of administrative and financial independence for municipalities, and envisages participatory democracy mechanisms that allow citizens to be involved in municipal government. A meaningful first step towards decentralization and local populations empowerment, in a country historically characterized by a high level of administrative centralization. Although the elected City Councils taxation prerogatives and the degree of their financial and decision-making independence vis-à-vis central and local government authorities are still unclear, municipalities will in principle be allowed to build, manage, and maintain, health, cultural and sports facilities, as well as educational institutions.
The Tunisian Elections Authority (ISIE) reported that the poll was fair and transparent, and “without major incident “; while the European Union Election Observation Mission (EUEOM) considered the results “credible”.
As to said results, it should first be pointed out the record level of non-participation, and second that the real winners are the independent candidates.
Indeed, the dominant two parties in Tunisian politics, Nida Tounes, a network of secularists and old regime elites, and its ally in government the reformed Islamist party Ennahda (which has recently decided to separate, at least formally, political activities and religion), have lost their hegemony, exercised over Tunisia’s political scene since 2014.
Nidaa Tounes, the dominant party in the coalition government, obtains only 22.7% of the votes –that is 1595 seats nationwide, according to ISIE. It seems that the recent adoption of a highly disputed law giving amnesty to thousands of people linked to corruption under the former Ben Ali regime, relentlessly promoted by the founder of Nidaa Tounes, President Caid Essebsi; as well as his efforts to institute equal inheritance laws for women, didn’t pay off electorally as he and his party expected. Nidaa Tounes performed poorly, losing some 1,430,816 votes (two-thirds of its voters) in comparison to the 2014 elections.
Ennahda, on the other hand did better. Yet, in spite of its militant machine, its numerous clientelistic networks, the outreach work performed by the NGOs it controls, as well as its efforts to extend its appeal beyond the usual Islamist electorate, and be perceived as just a conservative party standing for traditional and family values, won 29.68% of the seats; that is 2135 seats. In relation to the 2011 elections, Ennahda lost 1,129,725 votes .
The results for the other contenders, a few smaller parties on the left and center of the Tunisian political spectrum, include the following in terms of percentage of municipal councils’ seats: the Popular Front, 3.6%; the Democratic Movement, 2.85%; Machrou Tounes, 1.72%; Al Chaab Movement, 1.39%; and Afek Tounes, 1.29%.
Although some of them may be sponsored by Ennahda or/and Nida Tounes, we can state that, together, the independents are the winners of the May 2018 municipal elections. According to ISIE, they won 32.9% of the municipal councils’ seats (compared to Ennahdha, 29.68% of the seats, and Nidaa Tounes, 22.57%).
Political disaffection: While the participation rate for the 2014 parliamentary elections was 68.36%, it was only 33.7% for the May 2018 municipal elections. Only 1,797,154 Tunisians voted this time, out of more than 5.3 million registered voters, in a country of 11.4 million inhabitants. We should note here that according to ISIE figures, voter turnout was lower in poor neighborhoods of large cities, where living conditions have deteriorated even further since the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring, and in the deprived regions of the interior and the south, where they started. Equally concerning is the low rate of youth participation, as less than 25% of young people aged 18 to 21 have registered to vote, according to estimates by the EU mission.
These low rates of participation are not only indicative of voters disaffection with regard to politics, but also with political elites, principally those belonging to secular Nida and Islamist Ennahda, tangled in an unholy governing alliance that seems to serve primarily the interests of the latter. These elites are considered responsible for the rise of corruption, continuous and worsening high unemployment rates, the decline in purchasing power, and the degradation of public services; not to mention the erosion of the value of the Tunisian dinar, and the substantial increase in national debt. For many Tunisians, political parties are trapped in partisan quarrels, personal rivalries, and political maneuvering, and are incapable of translating institutional changes into tangible improvements for the majority of Tunisians.
Moreover, issues of power and power relationships at the local level, are not clear to the voters. The same is true with the prerogatives of the municipalities, including in terms of their fiscal ressources and the budget that will be allocated to them according the new Code on Local Authorities, which was adopted less than one month before the elections.
With the proportional voting system adopted by Tunisia, practically no list of candidates was able to achieve a majority of the electoral vote. This situation will thus require negotiations, which promise to be long and most likely complicated, in order to constitute functional majorities and elect the mayors, although Ennahda is expected to lead a majority of Tunisian municipalities.
On the other hand, it is worth noting that in spite of some enduring patriarchal traditions, particularly in areas of the interior of the country, and thanks to Tunisia’s Constitution, which includes provisions for gender parity in practically all elected assemblies, 48% of the candidates were women in the municipal elections, while they already represented 47% of the candidates in the 2014 parliamentary elections. The main innovation however is that 30 % of electoral lists were headed by women in the recent municipal elections, against 13 % in the 2014 parliamentary elections.
In conclusion, it seems that the conservative alliance between secular Nida Tounes and Islamist Ennahda has lost its appeal, if it ever had one, as such, among the majority of Tunisian citizens, and beyond some Western diplomatic and academic circles, and Washington think tanks, anxious to ensure the “stability” of the country around a reactionary, conservative hub. The alliance has proven incapable of delivering on practically any of the crucial social and economic issues that triggered the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring, not to mention implementing some of the economic and governance reforms demanded by Tunisians (including those designed to effectively fight corruption) and by Tunisia’s international creditors, lenders, and economic partners.
To the contrary, the living conditions of most citizens have worsened since 2011. At the same time, the nation’s budget deficit has dramatically increased, with a public sector wage bill that has more than doubled since 2011, after Ennahda (then leading a governing coalition (2011-2014)) decided the recruitment of some 90, 000 unemployed sympathizers as civil servants ; while the judiciary, security and public sectors reforms are still in need to be implemented –among others.
In addition, and as important, creeping “Islamicisation” (spread of basic, simplistic forms of a sort of neo fundamentalism, heavily tainted with dogmatism and superstition) under the influence of Ennahda and its Islamist populism, with its trail of excessive religiosity, backwardness, sloppiness, carelessness and neglect, fatalism and passivity, now affects large segments of Tunisian society; and certainly runs counter to the type of social mobilization that would be needed to deal effectively with pressing economic and social development challenges.
However, although the political disaffection manifested in the municipal elections may cast a shadow on the prospects of democratic transition, it remains that the rise of independents could eventually lead to a renewal of the political class and elites in Tunisia, more in tune with the needs and demands of the citizens, and dedicated to achieving the socio-economic objectives of the 2011 revolution.