Why Tunisia’s municipal elections are significant

PUBLISHED: Fri, 11 May 2018 17:50:24 GMT
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By Francois Conradie, Head of Research, NKC African Economics

Tunisia held municipal elections on Sunday, May 6. The fact of the elections’ occurrence is notable in itself, because these were the first municipal elections since 2010, and so the first since the Arab Spring upheavals that started in Tunisia in December 2010.

The municipal authorities that result from the vote complete Tunisia’s transition to a fully mature constitutional democracy, entrenching its reputation as the Arab country to have emerged from the Arab Spring in the best shape. (More pessimistic commentators describe it as the only Arab country to have improved its situation since then.)

It is true that the elections are a milestone in Tunisia’s consolidation of its democratic governance, but they are also a barometer with which to evaluate the state of party politics, and politics more generally, just over seven years after the autocratic President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee his country on a private jet after his people and his apparatus of authoritarianism had turned on him, and three years since the secularists of Nidaa Tounes and the Islamists of Ennahdha struck a grand bargain to put an end to serious social strife.

The elections were delayed several times before they finally took place on Sunday – the original date for them had been October 2016. The main questions about the election beforehand were how big turnout would end up being, and, of course, which parties would do best.

The Higher Independent Instance for Elections (Isie) published its provisional results from every constituency on Tuesday, May 8, and although the results are not final, we do not expect them to change much by the time the final ones are announced on Wednesday, May 9, so we are comfortable commenting on them.

On turnout, firstly, the result was poor: at the national level turnout was only 33.7% of 5.4 million registered voters. In Tunis the figure was only 26%. No prominent parties or civil societies called for a boycott but there was a widespread perception in Tunisia before the vote that the exercise was a useless one – many Tunisians who spoke to journalists on voting day spoke to a theme of betrayal by the corrupt political class.

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed called the high abstention rate a “negative sign, a strong message to political leaders,” although he himself has been less than enormously forceful in cracking down on the kind of corruption people are fed up with.

Also, his policies have contributed to the very worrying price inflation levels currently eating away at Tunisians’ living standards. Consumer price index inflation hit 7.7% y-o-y in April, the highest level since 1991, and we expect consumer price inflation to increase further as Mr Chahed’s government looks to boost revenues by raising taxes as well as reducing energy subsidies, instead of trimming the massive public sector wage bill, which would make the biggest difference but which would trigger a showdown with the powerful labour unions.

Nor have people seen enough action on tax-dodging importers with links to the political class.

The broader theme of betrayal also results from the grand bargain between Nidaa and Ennahdha, which did improve stability in Tunisia, but also resulted in a crisis of political legitimacy. The political class lost much of its credibility in the deal, and Nidaa lost the most: many who voted for the party in 2014 did so to push back against political Islam and subsequently felt betrayed by President Beji Caid Essebsi’s chumminess with the bearded Muslim Brothers of Ennahdha.

The grubby and self-serving factionalism in the party, where Mr Caid Essebsi was seen as backing his son Hafedh for the party leadership, prompting a split, would not have helped.

The table below summarises the preliminary results the Isie was publishing on Tuesday evening:

Given the factors outline above, Nidaa’s relatively poor performance makes sense. So does Ennahdha’s strong showing: the Islamists have the most disciplined and organised (and, we suspect, best funded) political machine in the country, and its religious reference has a strong appeal for many. Of the 100 municipalities it won, many are in the south, where piety is more important.

We were slightly surprised by the strong showing by independent lists, which won 91 municipalities, and a greater share of the vote than either of the ruling parties – another sign of general mistrust of the political class. The hard-left Popular Front (FP), which has been implementing the electoral strategy of painting itself as the champion of workers against the neoliberal Nidaa-Ennahdha coalition, did dismally, winning only 70,000 votes, and smaller parties did worse still. Ennahdha won most of the municipalities in the Greater Tunis area, apart from the well-heeled Sidi Bou Saïd (Nidaa) and a few constituencies that went independent. In Sfax, Ennahdha did best, and on preliminary results the parties have the same number of seats in Sousse.

The municipal councils are supposed to elect mayors by the middle of June.

We had always considered the danger of extremists disrupting the vote a small threat, and the only incident was in Mdhilla, near Gafsa in the restive phosphate mining country, where voting was postponed at 24 polling stations because of a mix-up with ballot papers.

The existence of a municipal level of government should lead (as it was intended to) to a greater degree of decentralisation of power, which will be risk-positive, but it remains to be seen how much freedom Nidaa and Ennahdha, two parties with strongly conservative instincts, will give mayors.

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