Will Tunisia’s municipal elections change anything?

Will Tunisia’s municipal elections change anything?

Tunisians will head to the polls on May 6 to vote in the country’s first free municipal elections since the removal of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his government in 2011.

Having been postponed four times, the elections come as a relief to many Tunisians who, at times, have seen some of the most basic services disrupted as a result of the political uncertainty that followed the revolution.

The country’s municipalities have historically been overshadowed by the central authorities in Tunis, which left little to no room for deliberation and progress to take effect in the rest of the country, especially in the rural and less industrialised interior regions.

Ben Ali’s final budget prior to his overthrow allocated a mere 18 percent of state funds to the inner regions while 82 percent went to the coastal towns.

Long touted as the Arab Spring’s lone success story, Tunisians increasingly sense that the revolution has failed to deliver on its promises and fix this imbalance.

Between juggling the needs of Tunisia’s international lenders and allaying local grievances, authorities have managed to present a semblance of stability in the Arab world’s only democracy.

With campaigning already under way, Tunisians hope that the upcoming elections, seen as a step towards decentralisation and local empowerment, will help reverse the imbalance.  

Decentralising decision-making

Following the revolution, existing “elected” councils – if only in name – were dismantled and replaced with special delegations appointed by the transitional authorities.

Accountability proved to be a real challenge as members of these councils were not chosen by the people and therefore could not be held in check.

Moreover, infighting within these communal bodies interrupted the course of life for many ordinary people.

From building permit acquisition to waste management, delays played a big role in people’s disenchantment with the new “democratic” mode of governance.

To be sure, the economy’s sluggish recovery in conjunction with the government’s unpopular austerity measures – an effort to placate international donors – have also contributed to popular discontent.

Citing recurring absenteeism and negligence of duties, the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development announced in November 2016 the replacement of 13 special delegations throughout the country.

A 2015 report by the World Bank found that only four percent of households claimed to have received any information from their local representatives, while 64 percent thought their delegates did not work to advance their interests.

The report notes that the country’s pre-revolution, highly centralised form of government had further complicated the task of building trust between the government and its citizens.

Tunisian politics, in the years leading up to the revolution, had been characterised by a rigid centrist structure where decisions pertaining to issues of local governance fell under Tunis’s purview

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