Municipal elections in Tunisia – a wakeup call

Municipal elections in Tunisia – a wakeup call

On 6 May, the first municipal elections in Tunisian history took place. But, only a third of eligible voters casted a ballot, and independent lists won more votes than the governing parties in contrast to high turnout in 2014. The results signal the population’s frustration with the country’s stagnation since 2011 and political fatigue among disappointed youth.


Tunisia’s centralised state

The French affection for highly centralised political systems left its mark on the nation’s former colonies. When Tunisia became independent in 1956, it was left with a disproportionally powerful capital and little autonomy for its regions. Both Tunisian strongmen presidents, Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali, guarded and expanded this system, centralising all decision-making power in Tunis and furthering regional divides.

The Jasmine revolution in 2011 put an end to this and the country’s constitution of 2014 demanded decentralisation. Municipality elections were planned for 2015, however government authorities postponed them four times due to administrative and logistical deadlocks. When the polls opened on 6 May 2018, it marked a historical moment for Tunisia’s democracy and long-awaited structural reforms. In 350 constituencies, about 57,000 candidates from 2,074 electoral lists were on the ballot. Half of them were women and young people, representing the country’s progressive political activism. The only catch was that barely any voters showed up.


Democracy without democrats

Varying sources report voter turnout between 33% and 35%. Despite the electoral lists’ young and often trusted candidates, the average voter was old. Much of the country’s youth refused to support any of the parties as many consider them equally corrupt and elections futile.

Tunisia’s economic situation has not improved since the ousting of former president Ben Ali. Unemployment remains around 15%, the trade deficit grows, and public spending exceeds the state’s income by a large margin. The current odd coalition government between Tunisia’s two biggest parties, Nidaa Tunis, a pool of neoliberals, reformers, and former Ben Ali supporters alongside Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, has not met expectations. On the contrary, the few achievements of the government – in combination with the coalition treaty that has watered down the original demands from both sides –  have disillusioned and alienated many voters from both camps.

81% of Tunisians think that corruption has increased since the revolution, and up to 42% feel that the country was actually better of under the former dictator. Almost all agree that the economic situation is bad and will worsen. It is not only the perception though. Phosphate mining fell output to 44% of pre-revolutionary levels, tourism has not yet recovered to its pre-2011 levels, and foreign exchange reserve shortages prompted the government to issue a list of goods under import restrictions in November 2017.


The advance of the independent lists

While Nidaa Tunis emerged with a clear victory after the legislative elections in 2014, the party faced a major setback this time. It came in third with 20.85% of the votes, with Ennahdha surpassed its main rival with 28.64% of the vote. Despite beating Nadaa Tunis, Ennahdha also suffered losses as it had almost 500,000 fewer votes than in 2014.

Independent lists won 32.27% in a landslide victory. This array of locally organised and rooted campaigns, often dealing with topics such as corruption, land reforms, waste disposal, and infrastructure, secured approximately 2,300 seats. Newly elected independent candidates are likely to pose a challenge to the region’s governors who are appointed envoys of the central government. Many of these candidates have genuine intentions to tackle local problems, whereas many governors who often owe their political career to Ben Ali’s nepotism disdain freely elected local governments and mayors. Despite these differences, it is unlikely that a political deadlock will paralyse local governance. Tunisia has a proven remarkable ability to find political consensus and to uphold democratic principles.

Moreover, independent lists reflect the deadlock of Tunisia’s liberal opposition. Nidaa Tunis is liberal and progressive, yet many consider the party corrupt and full of Ben Ali’s cronies and profiteurs. Ennahda is no alternative for many young people, businesses, and coastal inhabitants due to its religious programme. Between Scylla and Charybdis, young voters either turned to independent lists or abstained from the elections.

In the absence of any significant majorities, the coalition government is likely to continue. Both sides have already signalled their willingness to cooperate and talks between Nidaa and Ennahda about the mayor of Tunis have begun.


Heralding the legislative elections in 2019?

The municipality elections certainly kicked off considerations about the upcoming elections in 2019. All depends on the ability of the government to solve current problems, foremost the dire economic situation, as well as independent candidates’ successes so as to prove that they are worth trusting.

While it is unlikely that the government achieves significant economic betterment in the coming months, it is equally unlikely that the established parties will vanish and that the economic situation worsens. Nidaa and Ennahda have well-established structures and a voter-base big enough to mobilise in order to remain the country’s most important political powers. The recent five months, overshadowed by protests against the new financial law  of 2018, were a wake-up call for the political establishment of Tunisia. Economic questions will likely be the topic number one during electoral campaigns in 2019.

There is a more unlikely, dangerous scenario for Tunisian politics. If the UGTT continues to block public sector reforms, mining output remains low and tourism arrivals don’t live up to the expectations, the consequent frustration will pave the way for more authoritarian “drain-the-swamp” rhetoric. Independent lists and grassroots campaigns are deeply rooted in Tunisia’s active civil society, yet the danger of anger and economic despair translating into radical politics should not be underestimated. Tunisia is, after all, the only democracy in North Africa.

Categories: Politics

About Author

Hauke Waszkewitz

Hauke Waszkewitz works as a project consultant in the events department of the German chamber of commerce in Tunisia. Prior to coming to North Africa, he worked as a research consultant for Action on Armed Violence where he analysed explosive violence and terrorism. Hauke holds a BA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Hamburg and an MA in Diplomacy from SOAS, University of London. His analyses focus on economic, political and security developments in North Africa.