The municipal elections scheduled for May 6, 2018, will be an important step in Tunisia’s democratic transition. This date represents an important moment for monitoring the evolution of the political and social context, the features of the shifting political landscape and the new trends in public opinion. The Supreme Independent Electoral Commission has succeeded in adhering to the electoral calendar, applying the electoral law and facilitating the work of candidates through its subsidiary bodies. The number of candidates is over 50,000, with more than 2000 competing lists. The results of the municipalities will be decisive in setting the outlines of the future political scene and will also influence the national legislative and presidential elections at the end of 2019.We examine the elections and its likely effects on the party landscape below.
Local rule: the seduction of the center and the attractiveness of decentralization
Tunisia seems to be launching major changes in its political and administrative organization by holding the municipal elections on 6th of May 2018. The elections are the first step in implementing Chapter VII of the Constitution, which deals with local government, composed of municipalities, regions and districts.
The media and other spaces for public dialogue have not addressed the importance of developing our political and administrative systems. It is vital to finalize and publicize the contents of the local government code prior to the municipal elections so that the newly elected councils will be clear about the powers and resources they have. This is also necessary in order to avoid unnecessary conflicts, especially when establishing decentralized structures and a new redistribution of powers and responsibilities.
The Tunisian administrative system has for long been an extension of the French administrative model and a reflection of the motto «a strong state and a stable political system». There is no exaggeration in saying that the central administration is responsible for regional disparities and the marginalization of the country's interior regions. Power and the administration were dominated by the capital and the coast, which enjoyed high levels of development and investment while other regions were neglected. The discrimination was obvious in interior regions that were deprived of the revenues of their natural resources and denied positive discrimination and the equal distribution of wealth. From that standpoint, the revolution of December 17th, 2010/January 14th 2011 is a revolution against Ben Ali's corruption and despotism and also a revolution against the centralization of power, oligarchy and discrimination against groups and entire regions.
As a result, Tunisian political elites were influenced by Tunisia's post-revolutionary course to become more sensitive to regional inequalities. Through the National Constituent Assembly, the political elites were keen to adopt new models for governance. The new Constitution adopted in January 2014 sought to distribute political power in a number of ways:
- The distributionof central authority between three centres- Bardo (the Parliament), Kasbah (the seat of Government), and Carthage (the Presidential Palace).
- Guaranteeing the right of the opposition to influence decision-making within the parliament.
- The approval of local and regional authorities in order to limit centralization, marginalization and inequalities between regions.
Will the municipal elections improve the image of parties?
Despite its local character, the national repercussions of the municipal elections are increasingly being confirmed. Contrary to the expectations of those who are sceptical regarding the democratic transition and those who are resolutely pessimistic about the future of the revolution, the electoral phase of the municipal elections of May 2018 began with positive signs. The number of candidate lists exceeded 2000 after the election body formally announced the final acceptance of the lists pending appeals.
There were few surprises regarding the weight of the various parties in the 350 municipalities. In all the constituencies, the party with the largest number of lists was Ennahdha with 350 lists, followed by Nidaa Tounes Party with 345lists.If we compare this with the electoral lists of other political parties, which are all below 70 municipal lists, it is clear that there is a vast gap between the biggest two parties and the rest. Nidaa Tounes managed to overcome the pervasive skepticism of its opponents and proved its ability to mobilize its base.
Consequently, what the lists reveal is the fragility of the post-revolutionary party landscape. Some parties have concealed their own internal weaknesses by joining together with other small parties in coalition lists – and even with this, the Civil Union coalition only managed to submit 34 lists while the Popular Front submitted 169. Other parties, including those that existed before the revolution, have no presence in the party scene overall.
It seems from the number of candidates and the scale of preparations for these elections that the competition will mainly be between the two parties Nidaa Tounes andEnnahdha. While never discounting the possibility of surprises, it is difficult to seehow any party that has patent difficulties in gathering the required number of candidates in various constituencies can aspire to gain enough votes to actually win seats. Some observers argue that the number of independent lists - 859 in total – hides, in reality, an attempt by some parties to present party candidates as independents, thus profiting fromthe elections withouthavingto bear the repercussions of an electoral defeat.
On the other hand, Ennahdha Movement’s nomination of a Jewish citizen on one of its lists raised a great deal of controversy both inside and outside Tunisia. The candidacy of Simon Salameh came as a surprise and an embarrassment to Ennahdha Party‘s opponents. Once again, Ennahdha Party has demonstrated its ability to modernize and surprise its opponents. This candidacy encapsulates the meaning of equal citizenship as enshrined in the Constitution while also reflecting Ennahdha’s ability to shatter the stereotypes held by its opponents.
These elections are the first time that both vertical and horizontal gender parity is required on all lists, meaning lists must be composed equally of men and women, placed alternately down the list, and that 50% of heads of lists must also be men. In this context, the Electoral Commission recorded only one violation for Ennahdha, which it rectified .The Popular Front, on the other hand , placed 86 men at the head of its lists, leading the Electoral Commission to record20 violations against it and most of which were overturned. Ennahdha’s nomination of a woman as its head of list for Tunis, a municipality with great political and historical significance, carries a great deal of political symbolism .In addition, 50 young men and women head edits other lists.
An institution that may well come out the winner in these elections is the Independent High Electoral Commission, which has so far succeeded in managing the process in line with the electoral timetable and completing all preparations for the elections. This success has helped to dispel concerns over the performance of the Commission after the crises it experienced in 2017. All sides seem to be satisfied with the performance of the Commission so far, which is vital to the widespread acceptance of the results. The Prime Minister's recent comments in support of the electoral process have also served to increase confidence.
An issue that remains unclear is how ready citizens are to turn out to vote, with many previous surveys showing that a high proportion are unsure of their intention to vote. It is hoped that their interest in Tunisia’s first democratic local elections will increase with the start of the election campaign. This also requires prominent parties to send positive messages to voters and to ease frustrations by reassuring Tunisians that the newly elected councils will fight for their rights, and seek to meet their hopes and aspirations.