Tunisian municipal elections: on hope and engagement from the ballot box

Seven years after the Tunisian revolution which leaded to oust the former president Ben Ali, Tunisia is still facing economic, social and institutional turbulence. During our fieldwork in February-March 2018, our Tunisian interlocutors agreed almost unanimously that relentless unemployment, lack or degradation of basic services, corruption and the resulting distrust of institutions and political representatives make for the most significant challenges the country is facing after the “thawra”. Nonetheless, despite pessimism being a dominant mood in Tunisia, an unprecedented number of young candidates have run for office in the municipal election held on May 6, either as nominees of official parties or in independent lists.

We met some of them during the campaign and we were presented their view, often projected beyond the ideological divides one would have expected to find.

As Salima, a young candidate for the People’s Movement Party (Harakat ash-sha‘b) observed:

I see municipal elections as an opportunity for young people to come together and work together despite our different ideologies. I hope that young people are conveniently represented and that the principle of equal opportunities is respected. We also expect to achieve decentralization and political pluralism, which is nothing but a pillar of democracy. I want to see young women in power, independent women, and even a woman in the presidency. Young people must be persevering and continue their way in politics and certainly they will be actors of change on the national scene one day. We need to create a new political leadership.

We opt for local governance and participatory democracy. That’s what we claimed for in 2011… Let’s preserve our freedoms and the democracy we are constructing. Personally, I want to become a president of municipality, but, most importantly, leave a mark in my region. […] I insist on the importance of women in decision-making and in a position of power.

To Salima, the category of “young people” (shabâb) operates as a powerful vehicle of identification, one which allows her to encompass “different ideologies” after a period marked by social unrest and political violence. Being a militant in the party formerly directed by Mohammed Brahmi, a member of parliament who was killed by an extremist commando in July 2013 (https://nawaat.org/portail/2013/07/31/portrait-of-mohamed-brahmi/), her sensitivity acquires a particular significance. To her, the congregating class of “the young” is also associated to the idea of a “young democracy”, in which a woman chosen for a position of power becomes a meaningful marker (and maker) of change. Indeed, the association of women with democracy is another recurring theme in our conversations, voicing a hope of subverting the historical alliance between authoritarian state and patriarchy.

Abdellah, one of our interlocutors and head of the People’s Front list in his municipality, looks back to 2014 legislative and presidential elections as an important step in his political commitment. In his reflection, both frustrations and lack of trust in formal political actors play a key role. Discussing the absence of involvement of young people in politics, Abdellah claims that political parties do not address the concerns of young people. He believes that the political scene “does not resemble” the demographic and social reality of the country and cannot keep pace with the new way of thinking of the young. Instead of giving way upon a political reality dominated by corruption, Abdellah decided to engage into politics and encourage his peers to do the same.

In 2014 elections, we were expecting changes on many levels, but unfortunately nothing happened and things remained as they are. In a predominantly young country, there is a 90-year-old president who leads the country. I inquired into youth participation in elections and found that only 15% of youth did participate. I was amazed at this figure. So, I was convinced in some ways that young people are responsible for their exclusion from politics. I tried to convince them of the importance of integrating the political life. Some have even accepted what I said and joined political parties but others did not.

Anas, another of our interlocutors, qualified his political engagement as a step from a personal engagement to a commitment toward his community. He chose to join a political party due to a personal issue, but ended up considering the possibilities of a deeper involvement. He considers this choice as a way of bringing about a change from the ground up and not just a way to deal with personal frustration.

I joined the world of politics through sport…. I was an athlete. I wanted to change of team, but the president of the federation tried to impede it and began to persecute me when I did it… I felt a great injustice. He withdrew my medals and prevented me from participating in competitions… When I integrated the political party, my only intention at the beginning was to get rid of him, and indeed we managed to do it. But later on, my interest in political activity grew… I am going to run in the municipal elections.

In the opinion of our interlocutors, the candidacy of young leaders is highly empowering, giving – as they say – “to the youth” a new hope of becoming actors in a historical political process. Hanane believes that the elections will give greater authority to young people, who would start to be considered apt to manage public affairs. Political participation is generally seen as a powerful antidote for the overall state of frustration.

I am optimistic but sometimes I feel disappointed especially in front of politicians who pursue only their own interests. We are optimistic for the presence of young people in municipal elections […] We intend to run for regional elections as well. We are relying heavily on young people who, in my opinion, are tearing off the seats of those who are in positions of power in order to support our region.

Observing the composition of the electoral lists, it becomes clear that Hanane’s view is no exception: under 35 and women candidates were respectively 52% and 49,3%, both in party lists and as independent candidates[1]. While this outcome was certainly influenced by the new electoral code approved in January 2017 – requiring candidate lists to respect gender parity, disability, and include at least three candidates under the age of 35 (see http://www.ifes.org/news/tunisia-adopts-amended-legal-framework-local-elections) – it remains a remarkable sign, also considering that under 35s account for 32,6% of the total number of voters (1.753.788 out of 5.369.843). It shows that, well besides its local nature, municipal elections were considered an opportunity for personal commitment by a portion of the Tunisian youth. Several of our interlocutors stated that they decided to stand for election with the expectation of challenging the “powers that be” and giving more prominence to the marginal areas of the country, especially those of the interior and the south. Many of them have been very active in various stages of the campaign, rising awareness for participation and monitoring the scrutiny.

With what results? The low turnout, which rounded 35%, seem to confirm that this optimistic mood was limited to a selected portion of the population. A report issued by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies qualifies this result as “the lowest participation rate in the electoral benefits witnessed by the country since the revolution and emergence of political pluralism” (https://goo.gl/3F7HnP). Nonetheless, according to the available data, candidates under the age of 35 won almost a third of the available seats, while voters of the same age group (32,65%) suffered a minor decrease compared to 2014 (36,08)%[2], but remained almost perfectly aligned with the percentage of the entitled voters[3].

Still, the results can be hold significant for other two reasons: on the one hand the success of independent candidates (32.9% of preferences; 2,367 seats out of 7,212), which turns them into new actors in the local political sphere; on the other hand the emergence of new political parties. Despite the predictable success of the two main national groups – Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes won respectively 28.6% and 22.1% of preferences – new municipal councils will be characterized by increased political pluralism.

The Arab Network for Democratic Elections issued a preliminary report, presenting a number of recommendations[4]. The network insists on transparency, but also on realism and responsibility, calling to reduce unachievable promises in order to limit frustration. The report implicitly recognizes that unfulfilled expectations can contribute to foster social instability, but does not approach the causes of the rift between ‘promises’ and reality. A great deal of recommendations are addressed to the civil society, advocating for citizens’ engagement and participation in elections.

As we discussed earlier in this post, a number of young candidates, among whom some leaders of electoral lists, asserted that ideological orientation and party affiliation come second to the interests of Tunisia and the municipalities they represent. They manifest a need for unity after a long period of instability and a vision of politics as a matter of collective interest, testifying that, despite social unrest and economic crisis, Tunisia represents a happy turn in the landscape of the Arab revolutions, a “civil and political body with differentiated parts that are almost fully developed […] a painting where colours are differentiated, and not just in black and white[5].

 

[1]. Élections en Tunisie Élections municipales de 2018 – Questions fréquemment posées, IFES 2018 (https://goo.gl/9y21R9).

[2]. Official figures are provided by the Higher Independent Authority for Elections, in particular its report on Legislative and Presidential Elections Operation held in 2014 (https://goo.gl/wbLzzK) and the new website on Municipal Elections in 2018 (https://goo.gl/VnyAZv).

[3].الهيئة العليا المستقلة للانتخابات – احصائيات الخاصة بالسجل الانتخابي حسب الفئة العمرية للانتخابات البلدية ٢٠١٨ https://goo.gl/9Y2GNV

[4]. التقرير الإقليمي الاولي لبعثة الشبكة العربية حول الانتخابات البلدية التونسية ٢٠١٨. أيار/ماي ٢٠١٨. https://goo.gl/rfBvrU

[5]. Bishara Azmi, The glorious Tunisian revolution: the structure of a revolution through its journals, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. Doha 2012, p: 358.

How to cite this blog post:
Afailal H. (2018) “Tunisian municipal elections: on hope and engagement from the ballot box”. Available at: https://globallysens.hypotheses.org/ (Accessed [date]).


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