It has been over seven years since Mohamed Bouazizi’s protest sparked an uprising that led to the overthrow of longtime Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and spread throughout the Middle East. While the promise of the early days of the Arab uprising has evaporated throughout much of the region, Tunisia has continued its democratic transition in the face of economic and security challenges. An effort to decentralize governance—in order to better address Tunisians’ concerns and needs—has been a key component of the country’s democratization. The May 6 municipal polls, the country’s first-ever local elections, are potentially an important step in this decentralization process and Tunisia’s democratic consolidation. Darine El Hage, a regional program officer in USIP’s Center for Middle East and Africa, examines these milestone elections and their implications for Tunisia’s democracy.

A woman fills out her ballot in the Tunisian election

Tunisia’s decentralization is enshrined in its 2014 constitution and considered a critical step in its democratic transition. What role will these municipal elections play in the country’s decentralization process and democratic consolidation?

The municipal elections and decentralization of power are an important step toward strengthening the democratization process in Tunisia. Decentralization is aimed at bridging a gap between local communities and the central government with local governance structures. Among other things, this will render decision-making processes that affect daily lives more accessible to citizens.

Managing Tunisians' expectations regarding economic improvement, particularly related to jobs and local development programs, has been a key part of the transition process. Therefore, having local municipalities empowered and capable of informing their communities, addressing people’s daily needs, and responding to imminent demands is crucial. In theory, this decentralization of power demonstrates a responsiveness on behalf of the political class and an openness to engage more effectively with various communities, especially those who have always been marginalized or forgotten, like those in Tunisia’s interior region.

Widespread protests broke out in January over frustration with economic conditions and unemployment. Will the municipal elections help address these grievances?

The grievances that led to January’s demonstrations were triggered by the parliament’s discussion of a finance law that would raise prices of staple goods in the face of the devaluation of the Tunisian Dinar, high levels of unemployment, and insufficient public services. Since the January 2011 uprising, Tunisians have regularly gone to the streets to protest unfavorable laws and policies. It usually starts around one specific demand in one governorate and then spills over to others—we saw it in Kasserine in 2016 and in Khamour in 2017.

While some decision-making pertaining to economic reforms will remain the prerogative of the central government, municipalities can play a vital role in diffusing community tensions and frustrations. Through daily interaction and governing, municipalities can play an effective role in informing national policies and provide citizens with access to information on policies that concerns their daily lives. Indeed, a lack of access to information has been a major trigger of tension at the local level.

Since 2015, USIP has detected an urgent need for the government to be more serious about managing expectations and devising inclusive institutional reforms mechanisms. It is crucial to demonstrate that the government is serious about meeting post-2011 demands. Ideally, municipalities could be playing this role, in addition to facilitating the delivery of these commitments. For this to materialize, local capacity building programs are needed, along with more clarity on the decentralization law and willingness on the part of the central government to delegate responsibilities to the municipalities.

What role did Tunisia’s youth—who were a key driver in sparking the uprisings that roiled the Middle East in 2011—play in the municipal elections?

Initial reports indicate a low turnout among youth and women. This can be attributed to a variety of issues, including general disillusionment about the country’s political class, a lack of awareness of what these elections can bring to Tunisian youth, and youth finding agency more on the street than in organized political life. For youth to play a role as an agent of change and contribute to municipalities’ post-election life, they have to believe in their own efficacy.

Fundamentally, Tunisia’s youth need to understand that they can affect change by participating in the political process, not just through protests and demonstrations. Irrespective of political and ideological differences, municipal elections offer a venue where shared concerns and basic needs provide a common ground for youth from diverse backgrounds to come together. Throughout USIP’s interaction in community dialogues involving youth, it is clear that youth do not feel represented by political parties, and predominately find political agency in student unions, civil society activism and protests. Local elections can offer an additional (and sometimes alternative) space for participation and partnership with authorities, where past political and ideological differences can be put aside for the wider good of communities. Elected members of municipalities should adopt inclusive participatory measures and need to demonstrate competence for youth and the wider community to understand their role and how local governance structures can improve their lives.

Heading into the May 6 polls, there were concerns that voter turnout would be low. What was the overall turnout and how will it affect the perceived legitimacy of the decentralization process?

Whether the reported 33.7 percent turnout is low or high is up for debate; some seem to think it is an acceptable percentage for the first municipal elections, while others disagree. Low turnout can be linked to the need for more awareness campaigns on what these elections can bring and an overall feeling of disillusionment with politics. Furthermore, the uncertainty caused by multiple postponements of these elections and the resignation of Independent High Authority for the Elections commissioners in the months leading up to the vote could have affected the perception, or even the credibility, of this election.

It remains a bit early to link turnout with the question of legitimacy. The May 6 vote was the first democratic municipal elections and proving its worth to the local community is something that will play out in the post-election phase. However, the elections are an important step. Moving forward, it will be critical for municipalities to define their role in decentralization as soon as possible in order to determine their own roles and responsibilities. This will be another critical step in Tunisia’s democratic transition, as it prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019.

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