Local elections in Tunisia: Implementing the constitution and reinforcing the transition

By Nidhal Mekki, 1 June
Tunisian Female Ambassadors educated and mobilized rural women to register and vote in the local elections (photo credit: IFES)
Tunisian Female Ambassadors educated and mobilized rural women to register and vote in the local elections (photo credit: IFES)

The successful completion of the Tunisian local elections is a milestone in the consolidation of democracy and the implementation of the constitution. The outcomes of the elections will lead to better representation of women and youth, and contribute to enhanced mandate for local authorities and participatory democracy. Nevertheless, caution must be taken to ensure that the underlying causes of the low turnout, the failing of the election management body, and the slow process of constitutional implementation do not derail the transition – writes Nidhal Mekki.

On 6 May 2018, breaking the cycle of repeated postponement, Tunisia held its first local elections for 350 municipalities under the 2014 Constitution. Since the 2011 revolution, municipal authorities (‘special delegations’) have been appointed by the central government. Although the 1959 constitution provided for elected local councils, there was no real decentralization of power and local authorities had very limited functions. Despite allegations of election law violations and understandable criticisms, the elections were successfully carried out and were generally free and transparent. This has eased serious doubts regarding the consolidation of Tunisia’s democratic transition.The elections have opened a new era of long-awaited local democracy. Above all, these elections are a step towards the implementation of Tunisia’s constitution. The newly elected local authorities will have unprecedented mandate to pursue participatory democracy and development.

Local elections: Advancing women and youth representation

The 2014 Tunisian Constitution establishes decentralization as a fundamental feature of the state and commits the state ‘to strengthen decentralization and to apply it throughout the country’. Accordingly, it devotes a whole chapter – Chapter VII - to ‘local power’. The chapter outlines the principles that should guide this constitutional choice, including the election of local councils concretized by the elections of 6 May 2018. The constitution also requires the ‘representation of youth’ in local authority councils. This requirement forms part of a broader constitutional principle enjoining the state ‘to provide the necessary conditions for developing the capacities of youth’ and ‘to extend and generalize their participation in social, economic, cultural and political development’. To give effect to these constitutional principles, the organic law 2017-7, which amended the electoral law of 2014, requires that every list of candidates in local elections must include, among the first three candidates, a candidate under the age of 35 and that at least one of the ‘next-in-line’ six candidates of the same list must meet this same age requirement.

37.16% of local council seats will be occupied by persons under the age of 35.

This constitutional and legislative requirement has achieved its intended effect in the last elections. Accordingly, 37.16% of local council seats will be occupied by persons under the age of 35. Despite the significant voter abstention, with 35.6% turnout, the result shows that young people have mobilized in large numbers to stand as candidates and that political parties as well as independent lists have respected applicable laws to allow the youth to take their rightful place. The participation of young people in municipal councils will inject fresh blood into the political class and prepare them to consolidate gains in forthcoming elections. Hopefully, the young council members will become bearers of a new citizen and political culture that breaks with closely partisan calculations in the management of local affairs in favor of the effectiveness of municipal councils. The presence of many young candidates in independent lists is a promising indicator in this direction.

Another profoundly important aspect of the elections is the issue of parity and vertical and horizontal alternation between women and men on the lists of candidates for the elections. This is in line with the constitutional duty of the state to work towards ‘parity between women and men in elected assemblies’, which is expounded in the amended Electoral Act in the form of vertical alternation within the same list. The Act goes further and guarantees horizontal alternation. Hence, it is not enough to just have an alternation between men and women in the same list. In addition, if a political party or an electoral coalition presents itself in more than one electoral district, there must be an alternation in the head of the lists. This provision allows for greater representation of women at all levels.

29.55% of municipal councils will be presided over by women, and women will occupy 47.05% of all local council seats.

These constitutional and legislative requirements produced the intended effects and propelled Tunisia to the forefront of countries where parity is highly respected globally. Thus, 47.05% of the seats in the municipal councils will be occupied by women. Crucially, 29.55% of municipal councils will be presided over by women. This proves that the law is playing its role as a vector for social change. The participation of women and youth will give municipal councils greater legitimacy and inject a different way of thinking and acting.

Towards an enhanced local mandate and participatory politics

In addition to improving the level of representation of women and the youth, the new constitutional and legal framework sets out fundamental principles laying the ground for enhanced levels of decentralization and democratic politics. The newly constituted local governments enjoy higher levels of authority and freedom of administration. Under the Local Government Code, recently adopted by the Assembly of the Representatives of the People and expected to come into force shortly, local councils will have exclusive as well as concurrent competences shared with the central government. The new law also sets out the regulatory powers of local councils and guarantees financial resources to enable local authorities to implement their policies. The law understandably provides for the progressive decentralization of power to ensure the conditions of its effectiveness and efficiency. This progressive approach to decentralization is necessary, considering the challenges of breaking with the tradition of a very centralized regime that has marked the country for decades. It is critical to note that centralization of power in Tunisia is not only a legal phenomenon; it is also pervasive in the mindset and reflexes of public authorities, administrators and even citizens.

The new framework guarantees financial resources to enable local authorities to implement their policies.

There are concerns that local authorities may draw an extensive interpretation of their competences, potentially leading to the weakening the state and even its dismemberment. In particular, there is misunderstanding in some circles regarding the fact that, under the constitution, the exploitation of natural resources is for the benefit of the nation, rather than for the sole advantage of any lower level authorities. There is also concern that the new system may exacerbate regional sentiment because of inequalities. These concerns cannot simply be dismissed, and therefore require careful political planning to overcome challenges as they emerge. Nevertheless, similar warnings were made about the ‘danger of the democratic transition’ in weakening state authority. However, and despite the expected difficulties, the process of democratic change in Tunisia is showing demonstrable progress. In a country long accustomed to a highly centralized governance structure, decentralization will inevitably face challenges, but this is not a reason to give it up. To address the potential challenges, it is important that the national debate on these issues continues with transparency, sincerity and accountability and that the intermediate bodies (political parties, civil society, media) play a constructive role in that regard.

Another principle that will characterize Tunisian decentralization is that of participatory democracy and open governance, laid down in the constitution and reaffirmed in the Local Government Code. Accordingly, local governments must consult and ensure the participation of civil society organizations and citizens in the design, implementation and evaluation of local development plans. The importance of the participatory model is no longer questioned in view of the success of the participatory approach in the drafting of the 2014 Constitution. The challenge now is to provide citizens at the local level with practical opportunities to meaningfully participate in policy design, decision-making, and therefore in the exercise of power. This democracy building from the bottom up can allow citizens to claim ownership of public affairs and is a critical guarantee for establishing a sustainable democratic regime.

Local elections and the new political order: Progress and challenges

Constitutional and legal principles are, of course, very important, but their effective implementation in practice depends on the political context and the willingness of political actors to promote and respect them. In this regard, while some observations bring hope, others raise some concerns.

Independent lists obtained significant scores in several districts and some have even taken first place.

First, the elections passed without major incident (apart from the postponement of the elections in the district of Mdhilla in the south). Military and security officers had the right to vote in local elections for the first time and yet there were no security incidents on the day of the vote (29 April, one week prior to election day). Secondly, independent lists obtained significant scores in several districts and some have even taken first place. This indicates that many people active in civil society (especially among youth) are becoming more involved in politics and that they will certainly contribute to regenerating the political class and pushing it out of the sclerosis that characterizes it. Thirdly, new democratic forces, notably Attayar and Machrou Touness, have emerged to challenge the more established ones, particularly the moderate Islamist Ennahda and the secular Nidaa Touness. This will allow diversity of the political offer in the forthcoming elections and prevent the monopoly of the political space by the country’s two largest political parties.

Despite these positive developments, there are certain causes for concern that deserve attention and reflection from all political parties, especially those in government. The first is the high rate of abstention in the local elections where only 35.6% the registered voters turned out at the polls. The rate of participation of security personnel was particularly low. For the first local elections after the revolution and the constitution of 2014, the turnout  rate is too low and reveals a deep unease among citizens towards the entire political class, if not a frank disavowal. Political parties, especially the larger ones, need to take this alarm signal seriously and make appropriate adjustments in their policies and speeches. If the current pace continues, by the autumn of 2019, when legislative and presidential elections are expected to be held, there is a high risk of seeing citizens take to the streets instead of entering polling stations.

Only 35.6% the registered voters turned out at the polls.

The second concern relates to the failings noted in the work of the Elections Body (ISIE) and, the pressure it experienced from certain political parties. In this regard, the ISIE must be given all the necessary means to organize the upcoming legislative and presidential elections under better conditions taking into account the grievances in the local elections. Political parties, particularly the established ones, must also give up the desire to attempt to influence the ISIE, as this is a precondition for transparent and free elections. It must be noted that the Council of the ISIE has dismissed its president for unspecified ‘shortcomings’. The Assembly of the Representatives of the People will have to rule on this decision in the days to come.

Democracy is a continuous process, not an event.

Overall, the successful organization of the first post-revolution local elections constitutes a significant advance in the implementation of the 2014 constitution. The law on the Constitutional Court is also expected to be amended to facilitate the election of four of its members by the Assembly of the Representatives of the People. Nevertheless, the overall implementation of the constitution has so far proceeded slowly, and the risks facing the democratic transition have not completely disappeared. Democracy is a continuous process, not an event. It is therefore critical that the government should work more effectively, political parties need to display a greater sense of responsibility, and citizens must always be vigilant and eager for liberty, democracy and progress.

Nidhal Mekki is a researcher in law at the Faculty of Juridical, Political and Social Sciences of Tunis (FSJPST).  He was legal advisor at the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.

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