Following the legislative and presidential polls in 2014, Tunisia has eventually announced that its municipal elections will be held on 17 December. The date is highly symbolic, as the intention is to strengthen the democratic transition on the anniversary of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazzi, which sparked the Tunisian revolution; it started in front of a municipality and will move forward with the people’s choices for the municipalities.
The date was announced after long discussions between political parties and civil society organisations which resulted in the adoption of the electoral law in January. Political disagreements delayed this process.
The new law allows the 130,000 members of the security forces and army to participate in municipal elections, as well as regional polls to be held at a later date. Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement objected to this initially, whereas secular parties, especially the Popular Front alliance of several leftist parties, supported the law.
Sensitivity about the military’s role in politics
The main reservation about this aspect of the new law is the traditional neutrality of the army in Tunisian politics. The security forces will be allowed to vote in this municipal election for the first time in the republic’s history. The opponents of the law point out that Article 18 of the 2014 constitution makes it clear that the army in Tunisia “is required to remain completely impartial.”
For Ennahda, alarm bells are ringing about the military’s role in politics and the tragic experience of the military coup in Egypt that resulted in the ousting of that country’s first democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. It is also sensitive about last July’s failed coup attempt in Turkey. “Even if the military seems to be impartial today,” says the movement, “it may have a more interventionist attitude one day.” What lies behind this fear is the risk of breaking the army’s characteristic discipline, loyalty, neutrality and readiness to serve the people and state.
This is a legitimate concern, but the new law grants army and security officials citizenship rights enjoyed by others; furthermore, the constitution guarantees the right to vote to all of its citizens. Article 21 guarantees the equality of all citizens while Article 34 guarantees the right to vote. Hence, despite its initial reservations, Ennahda voted for the new law in parliament. Such a reconciliatory approach has solved one more political problem. The other parties should take Ennahda’s point of view into account by taking the necessary measures to guarantee the army’s political neutrality.
The importance of municipal elections
Since the revolution in 2011, Tunisians have suffered from unprecedented economic problems resulting from the instability in the country. Following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Tunisia, many foreign investors and tourists looked elsewhere. The government has had to take some positive steps in order to attract them back, such as an investment conference last November.
Economic development to provide employment opportunities is a fundamental necessity for Tunisia. The people want to see a change in their purchasing power which will prompt them to believe that their revolution matters.
It is the same on the social level. While Tunisia has succeeded in its democratic transition politically, as well as in the operation of its transitional justice procedures, this does not affect the people’s lives in and by itself. It is true that they enjoy relative freedom of expression, but for many this is the only benefit of the revolution that has had a partial impact. While such freedom was one of the revolutionary slogans, it was not the only one. If the Tunisians do not see and feel changes in their daily life, the democratic transition risks being dragged along an unsustainable path which could reverse the benefits seen so far. People need to believe in the change, otherwise all the laws adopted in parliament may be meaningless.
Lack of municipal authority in Tunisia
One of the obstacles to this process is the current inability of the municipalities in Tunisia to take action. You don’t have to be an expert to notice the lack of municipal power. Many neighbourhoods in the capital are strewn with rubbish if they are not under the wing of UNESCO. Pollution of the environment is a problem, and the responsibility lies with the municipalities. When you ask ordinary people about the pollution and rubbish lying around, they invariably answer, “It was not like this before the revolution.” This demonstrates both the threat to democratisation and the importance of the local authorities which will be elected in December.
Tunisian politics still has a transparency problem and the gap between politics and society remains wide. The municipal elections — one of the most important stages of the democratisation process — aim to close this gap with the localisation of democracy; this can also be called a phase of decentralisation. If the local authorities operate as the agents of the central government, as they do at the moment, rather than as powerful tools to fulfil their responsibilities towards the people, the revolution cannot spread more widely within society. With the new electoral law and the municipal elections, the system is expected to enhance efficiency, citizen participation, accountability and local development, which should also be maintained by other necessary judicial amendments.
However, it has to be said that giving more powers to local authorities cannot solve all of Tunisia’s problems. While localisation and decentralisation does not mean the dissolution of the central government, it does see important duties given to the municipalities. With the participation of civil society, central government should open the way for local authorities while coordinating the process.
The people of Tunisia want to see and feel the economic and social achievements of the revolution to effect positive changes in their lives compared to the era of ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. With a successful political transition, Tunisia continues to walk on the democratic path, but this can only be sustained with justice-oriented social and economic policies that reflect directly on people’s lives. Seven years down the line, the municipal elections will remove a crucial barrier from this path.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.