Abderrahim, T. 2017. Tunisia’s new law: another step towards local democracy. ECDPM Talking Points blog, 3 February 2017.
This week, Tunisia’s national assembly has passed the long-awaited law on elections and referenda, a step that has elicited mixed reactions. The new law, which completes and amends the basic law on elections adopted in 2014, will govern all types of elections and referenda, from parliamentary to presidential, from regional to municipal. Setting a unified law seeks to prevent potential confusion among voters regarding the conduct of elections and avoid any inconsistencies between separate laws. It is yet to been seen whether this proposal will pass the constitutional review.
Some local issues and initiatives, like that of the Henchir Jemna oasis, attracted nation-wide attention for they shed light on the potential of local communities. These issues also highlight the urgent need to set up mechanisms that can enable to tap into the country’s potential. That is why this new step is highly significant for Tunisia’s democratic transition. The long-delayed local elections are expected to be held at the end of October or early November this year, and they would be the first transparent and free municipal elections in Tunisia.
The new law is widely perceived as a new step towards conducting fair and transparent local elections, implementing the spirit of Chapter Seven in the Tunisian Constitution, which deals with local government and decentralisation. As the latter only offers general guidelines, there was a growing pressure to move the process forward and adopt key legislations to implement these principles.
Adopting this law was not a straightforward process. Reaching agreements on some provisions of the law, such as the right to vote for military and security forces, was challenging. Political reasons could have contributed to delaying the adoption of the law, as some political parties were enduring internal conflicts and unready for the electoral challenge.
However, some lawyers and civil activists have voiced their concerns about specific aspects of this new law. Mostly, it applies the system of closed-list proportional representation with the largest remainder method, which, according to some, might hinder the formation of cohesive and homogeneous councils. This can potentially lead to political conflicts at the detriment of local communities’ interests.
The new law also stipulates that the head of a local council is to be elected by members of the council during their first meeting. Some view this as an attempt to reverse the outcome of elections, as it runs counter to the choice expressed by people with their free vote. Instead, the head of the local council should be the head of the list that received the majority of votes.
The provision to grant army and security personnel the right to vote remains the most contentious issue. Proponents of this provision argue that members of security forces need to enjoy their full rights as citizens. Moreover, security forces contributed to succeeding national elections in 2011 and 2014 without siding with any political party, which makes fears about affecting the neutrality of the security institutions unjustified.
Others, however, expressed some fears about involving army and security forces in political calculations and raised practical issues with regard to the implementation of the law. For instance, most military personnel is deployed in cities other than those where they are registered and where, hence, they would need to vote. Allowing all security personnel to travel to those areas where they actually need to be in order to vote in a single day may pose practical issues.
Yet, the electoral law has provided some safeguards to avert potential risks. Army and security personnel has the right to vote only in municipal and regional elections and they are not eligible to run for these elections. They have no right to participate in electoral campaigns or party meetings, and breaches of these rules are sanctioned by law. Finally, they will be able to cast their votes ahead of the general vote.
The next challenge for Tunisia will be to pass the law on local authorities. This law will need to address several issues in order to design a coherent and efficient system of decentralisation. The desired system is expected to enhance accountability, efficiency, citizen participation, stability and local development.
Under the current – highly centralised – system, local governments function as agents of the central administration, rather than as powerful instruments of self-management. Concentrating decision-making in the centre has overlooked and marginalised local needs and concerns. The new model is expected to reintegrate local perceptions in local development plans, responding to the social and economic aspirations of the different communities, and to seek ways to boost and invest in local potential.
But the law on local government will need to ensure that a transfer of power to the local councils will be matched with an adequate transfer of resources. Regions have neither equal resources nor equal economic activities and thus, some regions will be able to generate more revenues than others. It is necessary not to create local councils that risk being quickly discredited by their people.
Yet, decentralisation is not a magic formula. While it offers a lot of opportunities, it can have possible downsides. If not well-managed, decentralisation can deepen regional disparities and make the coordination and cohesion of public policies more intricate. A decentralised model does not deny the role of the central authority.
The central authority would still carry out very critical tasks such as supervision, coordination, and evaluation. It is necessary to define the functions that the central government can take on in the most efficient way. Sound management of scarce resources in a way that balances national and local interests will also be required. Research reveals that the central government plays an essential role in enhancing decentralisation by empowering local authorities, providing training and technical assistance.
Tunisia is not starting from scratch but ensuring a transition towards a cohesive decentralised system will take ten years to materialise. Clearly, much work lies ahead for the legislators, civil society, and active groups at all levels. The government has already taken some steps forward, such as advancing the process of delimiting the boundaries of those municipalities that now cover the entire territory.
Civil society’s ِactive participation in discussions and national consultations on the draft laws also bodes well for a new democracy. There are multiple initiatives in the country to boost local development and self-management, such as participatory budgeting. Besides, a few months ago, a draft law on collaborative economy was presented to the government by the Tunisian General Labour Union. Engagement will, therefore, be key to a successful transition.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.
Photo courtesy of Amine Ghrabi via Flickr
Very clear and informative article - thank you!