High Abstention and High Stakes: Tunisia’s 2018 Municipal Elections

The first free municipal elections since former President Zin El Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster in 2011 were held in Tunisia on May 6, 2018. Despite low voter turnout – a dismal 33.7 percent nationwide – the elections were a significant step in post-revolution Tunisia’s democratic process and ongoing efforts to decentralize power.

High Abstention and High Stakes: Tunisia’s 2018 Municipal Elections

The first free municipal elections since former President Zin El Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster in 2011 were held in Tunisia on May 6, 2018. Despite low voter turnout – a dismal 33.7 percent nationwide – the elections were a significant step in post-revolution Tunisia’s democratic process and ongoing efforts to decentralize power.

Tunisia – considered the Arab world’s only democracy by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2016 Democracy Index – has long been a nation marked by huge regional disparities and major inequality between rural and urban populations. Tellingly, the last budget Ben Ali approved before being sent into exile by the Tunisian Revolution had allocated a whopping 82 percent of state funds to the highly urbanized coastal regions, leaving only 18 percent for the vast rural interior.

When Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956, it inherited a highly centralized state whose export-oriented economic model concentrated investment and growth in the country’s densely populated coastal zone. Such a system was well-adapted to the needs of a colonial administration but served to exacerbate post-independence inequalities as the coastal elite became increasingly integrated into the global economy while the rural inlands lagged further and further behind on almost every socioeconomic indicator.

It was, of course, in Sidi Bouzid – the capital of a landlocked governate in Tunisia’s central heartland – that the Tunisian revolution began. The street vendor who became the catalyst for the uprising, Mohamed Bouazizi, was driven to suicide by the corruption and arrogance of local authorities. Although police allegedly confiscated Bouazizi’s wares because he did not have a vendor’s permit, the head of Sidi Bouzid’s Office for Employment and Independent Work later affirmed that no permit is needed to sell goods from a cart. And when Bouazizi – who had not only had his cart seized, but also was slapped, spit upon and roughed up by a pair or police officers – went to the provincial government to complain, he was not even allowed inside the building.

Local government links with citizens have long been tenuous at best – and change has been slow to come in post-revolutionary Tunisia. In the immediate aftermath of Ben Ali’s removal, the new transitional government dismantled existing local councils and appointed special delegations to replace them. These delegations, however, proved to be largely ineffective: In addition to having little decision-making power, they suffered from a lack of accountability (after all, the delegation members were political appointees and not elected representatives), rampant absenteeism, and general negligence of their duties. Despite their limited authority, the local delegations managed to complicate the daily lives of millions of Tunisians by making such processes as applying for a building permit or ensuring the collection of municipal waste into frustratingly byzantine feats.

This may all be set to change soon, thanks to a series of promising recent developments starting with a new constitution and culminating in the recent municipal elections.

The constitution of Tunisia’s second republic, adopted in 2014, explicitly mandates a process of decentralization by empowering local authorities to take a leadership role in issues of local development. Progress has been, however, stymied for years while the date for post-revolutionary Tunisia’s first municipal elections was pushed further and further back – all in all, the elections were postponed four times between 2015 and 2018.

Then, on April 27 of this year, just ten days before the municipal elections were to be held, the Tunisian parliament enacted its new Code of Local Authorities (referred to in French as the Code des Collectivités Locales, or CCL), replacing the 1975 code and expanding autonomy and authority at the municipal, regional, and district levels. The last-minute adoption of the new code ensured that the forthcoming municipal councils would have a legal framework within which to function.

Unfortunately, it seems that the highly compressed time frame between the adoption of the new CCL and the municipal elections did not leave sufficient space for voters to appreciate the potential magnitude of the May 6 elections. Nationwide turnout was quite low at 33.7 percent.

However, this figure may be misleading. As an average, the figure of 33.7 percent does not tell the whole story. For the disillusioned urban voters of Tunis, the capital city, the figure was much lower – just 26 percent – suggesting that rural voters — those who had the most at stake — may have turned out in greater numbers.

In any case, these historic elections were clearly a significant step toward the decentralization so necessary in narrowing the gap between rural and urban populations in Tunisia.