Maghreb Matters: Tunisia Holds Local Elections, Independents Lead Returns. Economy Continues to Drag – Jean R. AbiNader

Jean R. AbiNader
May 15, 2018

Jean R. AbiNader, Moroccan American Center

Jean R. AbiNader, Moroccan American Center

While there were no clear winners in terms of a majority in the recent local elections in Tunisia, observers noted that, despite a low turnout of less than 34%, holding elections without major unrest represents an important step in moving towards decentralization that will empower local municipalities to make decisions on critical development issues.

According to an analysis by Reuters.com, most voters were older, which some took as an indication that younger voters are disillusioned with the government’s performance, particularly in the country’s anemic economic growth. In fact, the National Institute of Statistics in Tunisia said that inflation for family consumption had increased to 7.7% from 6.9% in January, led by jumps in food and transportation prices. A lower standard of living does not bode well for the country as some youth are joining illegal migrants headed to Europe or becoming radicalized.

“Independents got 32.2% of the vote, the Ennahda party 28.6%, and Nidaa Tounes 20.8% percent,” election commission official Riad Bouhouchi told Reuters, with final results expected this week. With around 7,200 council seats at stake, more than 2,300 went to non-affiliated candidates, while Ennahdha won 2,100 and Nidaa Tounes, close to 1,600 seats. “Political observers cited voter frustration with political elites, partisan squabbling, and the successive governments that many feel failed to live up to the promises of the 2011 revolution as reasons for the low turnout,” the Reuters story said. Rafik Halouani of the election observation group Mourakiboun, said the lack of participation represents a “disavowal” of Tunisia’s political class for “doing nothing to redress the situation in the country.”

On the other hand, local voters giving more weight to local independents in many ways reaffirms the adage that ‘all politics is local,’ reflecting the trust local voters invest in people who live alongside them and who have to live with the consequences of their decisions. Interestingly, Ennahdha’s Souad Abderrahim, who led in early voting tallies, may become the first female mayor of Tunis. Another positive result, according to Adel Brinsi, a member of the Independent Electoral Commission, was that although some abuses occurred at polling stations, they were not significant and did not affect the running of the election nor the results.

Of the 57,000 candidates who ran in 350 municipalities, half of them were women, young people, and the disabled. This was due to the electoral law passed last year to promote greater diversity and representation in politics. In an analysis of the law by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, it noted, “In addition to imposing vertical and horizontal gender parity for electoral lists, it required that at least three members of each list be under the age of thirty-five, and that at least one of the first ten be a person with a physical disability.”

It went on to point out that a well-regarded poll predicted the low turnout, saying that “Ultimately, the vote’s tangible impact will largely depend on the powers delegated to the elected bodies. To the extent the election lays the foundation for local mechanisms of governance and accountability, it could also usher in improvements for marginalized communities, thereby helping to stabilize pockets of unrest.”

Another hopeful perspective was offered by Carl Gershman of the National Endowment for Democracy.  “These elections will give civil society and ordinary citizens unprecedented opportunities to participate and to make their voices heard. It’s especially encouraging that 52% of the candidates for local office are under the age of 35.” This strong participation shows that young Tunisians are embracing democracy’s possibilities for reform and inclusion. Hopefully, this will counter the appeal of the extremists and make it possible for Tunisia to begin to reap the benefits of ‘the democracy advantage.’”

As decentralization is enacted, the prospects for decision-making by local governments in Tunisia will soon to be in the hands of local leaders and activist community members investing their passion and energy in the country’s future. With more support from the national government through rigorous reforms that reduce corruption and accelerate economic growth, Tunisia has an opportunity to achieve the benefits of its role as the pioneer in the Arab Spring. For more perspectives on the elections from the Carnegie Endowment Sada Journal, clink on this.


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