Tunisian municipalities are establishing their municipal boards these days, elected this May in the first free and democratic local elections in the history of Tunisia. These elections are also seen as a major milestone in the country's democratic construction, which started by the kicking out of a hegemonic, bloody and police regime on January 2011, followed by elections of a Constituent Assembly in October 2011 and the draft of a modern and progressive Constitution on January 24, 2014.
Tunisia's 2018 local municipal elections are important on many levels. They will give more powers to the towns and the local populations in the sectors of infrastructure, job creation, cultural activities, environment protection etc. They will make it easier and more practical for the access of local populations, political parties and civil society organizations and activists to control municipalities' budgets and expenditures and to directly contribute in local activities by direct participation and by suggesting projects.The elections should allow towns to avoid the obstacles and complexities of the extremely centralized political and administrative system that, since Tunisia's independence from France in 1956, has caused a lot of social, economic and political harms like corruption, bureaucracy, social injustices and regional discrepancies. Eighty six new municipalities were created between 2011 and 2016 in Tunisia, bringing their total number to 350.
The U.S.'s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace thinks these elections "could introduce a new political class, which would be outside the country's traditionally dominant political parties and could provide more opportunities for women and youth to enter politics."
In a report entitled "Decentralization in Tunisia: Empowering Towns, Engaging People" published last May 17, the Carnegie Endowment states that the decentralization should "improve service delivery at the local level where poor performance since the 2011 revolution has resulted in mistrust between citizens and the state as well as low tax revenues."
Germany's Heinrich Böll Foundation highlights that one notable aspect of this decentralization process in Tunisia "revolves around the effective realization of sustainable development." In a report published last March, the Foundation found that under the dictatorial regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, "the delivery of public services was subject to strict control from the central authorities, multiple overlaps, and pervasive corruption which constrained the potential for local environmental action. However, the years following the 2011 revolution have in fact seen municipalities being just as overburdened by inefficiencies, if not more in some cases."
The report concluded that "this has not only resulted in the perpetuation of unsustainable practices, as local governments lack both the administrative and financial capacity to improve services, but also in their deterioration."
On the pure political level, these municipal elections have also been very positive. Ideological polarization, which has plagued the country for decades, was very weak and sometimes even totally absent during these municipal elections. This is a major change as polarized stances and verbal violence have largely marked Tunisian politics and society for years and were the main causes of the tension, disputes and violence the country witnessed in recent years, especially between 2011 and 2016.
The content of political discourses and electoral programs were far from perfect, but they clearly and positively evolved compared to those in the 2014 elections. We also noticed a qualitative evolution in partisan positions and political discourses. For example, while long time left-wing, communist parties like those in the Popular Front coalition had many veiled women in their electoral lists, the Islamist-lenient Ennahdha party appeared with a secular, westernized style. They appointed many women as heads of their electoral lists, they had a Jewish businessman on the list from the city of Monastir and many women in their lists were not veiled.Besides, the May 6 elections uncovered the real shape and popularities of many political parties and coalitions who won very few seats or none at all or who failed altogether to submit electoral lists, like in the case of the Tunisia Alternative, the party of the former Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa. And the Municipal election also exposed the hypocrisy of many so-called "liberal" and "progressive" parties and politicians who not only failed to hire women in their electoral lists but they refused that a woman, Souad Abderrahim of Ennahdha party, become the mayor of the capital city Tunis.
A revolutionary legal frame
Another major accomplishment of these municipal elections is the implementation by the country's Parliament on April 26 of the Local Collectivities Code considered by observers and experts as a "revolutionary" decentralization legislation that will mark the future of local governance in Tunisia. This law has implemented the constitutional provisions on the transfer of powers and resources to local authorities. "Tunisia is going slowly but surely towards a decentralized government," says Dr. Jinan Limam, a Decentralization expert "but it is really important to take into consideration the specificities of the different municipalities, especially those newly created."
This law is in fact one major constitutional step. Article 139 of Tunisia's 2014 Constitution stipulates "local authorities shall adopt the mechanisms of participatory democracy and the principles of open governance to ensure broader participation by citizens and civil society in the preparation of development programs and land management and monitoring of their implementation, in accordance with the law."
The municipal process in Tunisia did not get the same media attention and political support compared to the democratic transition that started in 2011. A few countries famous for their long and successful tradition in local governance, like the U.S., Turkey and Germany, have contributed to the municipal process by training and supporting the CSOs involved in the electoral and development fields and by empowering them to monitor the whole process of the municipal elections. Turkey has also trained some elected municipal members in local management. "Civil society has an even more important role to play at the local level to encourage and ingrain a culture of participatory democracy by conducting an outreach campaign to the public regarding decentralization," the Carnegie Endowment report emphasized.With the technical and financial support of the World Bank, a five-year, $630 million Municipal Investment Plan has been set up in Tunisia with a view to help municipalities fund critical infrastructure projects.
International donors are already supporting participatory urban planning in Tunisia. Donors still have a role to play in fostering citizen engagement, access to municipal services, interaction with municipal officials and the digitization of local governance. However, the international NGO City Alliance notes that there is still "little communication among all of these different groups and organizations," and calls for "better coordination that would increase their impact and leveraging effects," City Alliance says its Country Programme for Tunisia is "a good opportunity to build on these initiatives and bring many of the development actors working in Tunisia together through a common platform for dialogue and consultation."
* Freelance journalist and documentary film maker, Tunis, Tunisia