François Conradie | NKC African Economics
On Monday, September 18, the Higher Independent Electoral Instance (Isie) announced that municipal elections that were supposed to take place in December had been postponed indefinitely. The step was agreed at a meeting that brought together the prime minister’s office, the State president’s office, representatives of political parties and the Isie.
According to the Isie’s statement, the “majority of participants was in favour of the postponement.”
These elections had first been scheduled to take place in October 2016, then in March 2017, then in December. No municipal elections have been held in Tunisia since 2010, before the revolution that led to the flight of President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali.
The Isie has been subject to underhanded interference for months, and last week Parliament was unable to pick new members to the body because a number of deputies were not in the chamber, apparently in a deliberate move to make sure there was no quorum.
The disappointing postponement will further sour the national mood, which has been affected by the passing of the ‘Reconciliation in the Administration’ Act, on Wednesday, September 13. This new law grants amnesty to civil servants who worked in government under Mr Ben Ali and who were accused of acts of administrative corruption but who did not take bribes.
The law was backed by the two main parties in government: the Islamist Ennahdha and the conservative secular Nidaa Tounes, which is home to a number of veterans of Mr Ben Ali’s dominant party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD). Nidaa is the party of both President Beji Caid Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, and Mr Essebsi in particular has come in for criticism for his sponsorship of the law.
Many in the opposition (particularly on the left) and in civil society deplore the law as a whitewashing of corruption under the RCD and as threatening a potential return to dictatorship; on Saturday, September 16, the opposition and civil society, led by a collective called ‘manich msamah’ (we will not excuse), led a march in Tunis that brought together at least several hundred people.
Hamma Hammami, the leader of the leftist Popular Front (PF), expressed the feelings of many when he said: “Beji Caid Essebsi is today the head of the counter-revolution along with Rached Ghannouchi [Ennahdha’s leader].”
Doubt has now been cast on the government’s commitment to reining in corruption. With the reconciliation law, it seems that the government has chosen to sweep some old crimes under the carpet for the sake of retaining experience in the civil service, but this will be at the expense of probity and the support of the broader population for the government.
Nidaa and Ennahdha have seemingly connived to push back the local authority elections for fear of doing badly as voters react to these unpopular steps. Unfortunately, this means that overspending in government and ineffective revenue collection (meaning turning a blind eye to smuggling and tax cheating) can be expected to remain problems.