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July 18, 2017
Almost a year into the tenure of Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, little has changed in Tunisia to significantly propel the democratic transition forward. Local elections are a key component of the country’s transition and the 2014 constitution. Devolving power back to municipalities is important in giving more responsibility and accountability to local government officials. While upcoming municipal elections are scheduled for December, in the absence of a clear framework for decentralization, elections alone are unlikely to be effective to develop local governance. But they remain a critical step for the Chahed government to avoid stalling the transition and demonstrate its commitment to strengthening structures of democratic governance.  

Recent and ongoing unrest in the interior demonstrates Tunisia’s need, six years after its revolution, to reform local governance structures and transfer more power to municipalities. Slow growth and high rates of unemployment, especially among youth, in the southern interior region follows years of marginalization and exclusion that post-revolutionary governments have failed to address across the region. Youth protesters in the southern governorate of Tataouine, for example, have demanded that the government invest in development and employment, and have sought to use the region’s natural resources as leverage for their demands by cutting off production and transport of oil and gas.  

In a recent poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI), over seventy percent of respondents said the government is not promoting policies to help youth succeed, and eighty percent said they think the country is going in the wrong direction. Effective municipal authorities would be more accountable to the priorities of Tunisia’s citizens and better placed to address critical development polities at the local level. 

The long-term dividends of local elections are also important for Tunisia’s transition. The elections could play a crucial role in engaging citizens locally, and could contribute to the development of a new political class of young Tunisians as new parties and candidates emerge at the municipal level. Participation in local governance would allow young Tunisians with experience and training to eventually be engaged at the national level. Development of a new political class is vital for the survival of Tunisia’s democratic transition, as the political process today remains largely dominated by powerful players with vested interests in the status quo.

Despite the clear need for Tunisia to embark on a decentralization process, the Chahed government and President Beji Caid Essebsi have pursued other priorities over the past year. Chief of those priorities is a war on corruption which Chahed declared in May; amid arrests of several prominent businessmen. Chahed has presented the anti-corruption campaign as a near-existential issue for Tunisia’s transition, saying, “It is a war, not a one-off battle…It is very important for the Tunisian economy, for the security of the territory.” Corruption is indeed a threat to Tunisia’s nascent democratic process; however, the government’s promotion of a controversial economic reconciliation bill raises questions regarding its motives. President Essebsi has presented the bill, which would grant amnesty to officials accused of corruption in the Ben Ali era if they repay the money they allegedly stole, as a way to help the country’s stagnated economy recovery. The legislation, which was first proposed in 2015, has been met with widespread criticism and protest among Tunisians concerned that it would give former corrupt officials a free pass.

While addressing the widespread issue of corruption is undoubtedly critical, the government must not sideline the importance of developing  electoral laws that establish a clear legal framework for municipal elections. Tunisia’s 264 municipalities are governed by a 1975 law that gives them no administrative or financial independence. Less than fifty percent of municipalities are capable of self-financing. While they do have the authority to collect several taxes, mainly business and property taxes, tax revenue is insignificant due to lack of enforcement. This leaves municipalities almost entirely reliant on central government appropriations. According to the IRI survey, sixty-five percent of Tunisians are dissatisfied with the provision of services such as electricity, water, waste management, and public transportation in their municipalities; only two percent trust their municipality to deliver services.

The 2014 constitution laid out intentions to decentralize the government under Title 8. It calls for the empowerment of local government, but fails to provide any specific legal framework for decentralization or mechanisms for coordination between the central government and local governments on service provision. For example, critical sectors such as education and health services require highly experienced officials, most of whom are concentrated in the capital, to regulate services. However, local officials have a better understanding of the needs of their constituents. Coordination between municipalities and the central government is imperative to ensure that regulations meet the needs and expectations of ordinary Tunisians.

In the absence of a framework for local elections and decentralization, the government is effectively left with two choices: either postpone the elections (they have already been repeatedly postponed) or move forward with elections in recognition of the importance of beginning the decentralization process.

Tunisians are unlikely to see a codified structure that assigns clear responsibilities to local governments before the December elections. This uncertainty could impact already low rates of participation. When voter registration opened in June, observers from ATIDE and Mourakiboun noted low turnout and lack of awareness. According to Nabil Baffoun, a member of the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE), "at least 3.4 million citizens with the right to vote are not on the electoral roll." Voter participation may also be low particularly among youth. Sixty percent of Tunisians told IRI that they do not know which party they would support in municipal elections. Forty percent of youth (18-34 years old) said they are unlikely to vote in the upcoming elections, largely due to a lack of hope. Additionally, the resignation of ISIE head Chafik Sarsar in May, which he said was due to an inability to work in an "impartial" and "transparent" manner, calls into question the electoral monitor’s ability to effectively organize the December elections.

Currently, Tunisians lack an incentive to participate in December; in the absence of a legal framework for decentralization, it remains unclear exactly what they would be voting for. However, it would be unwise to further postpone voting, which is a significant element of Tunisia’s democratic transition. Projected participation in the elections could decrease even further with another postponement, which could also trigger a backlash from the population that may increasingly view government promises of improved political and economic realities as hollow. Moreover, members of ISIE say that further postponing the vote will have negative repercussions for planned national elections in 2018.

Rather than postpone the local elections, the government should, in the months leading up to December, work to develop at least a partial framework for decentralization that can be implemented and expanded after the vote in order to ensure that local officials come into office with clear responsibilities. Such an effort is necessary to combat voter apathy and build the populations’ confidence in the country’s governing institutions. More importantly, an effective decentralization process in Tunisia would play a major role in ensuring stability and political engagement over the long-term.

Elissa Miller is an assistant director at the Atlantic Council for the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Emelie Chace-Donahue is an intern at the Atlantic Council for the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

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