Tunisia needs local elections to entrench democracy

Written by Rached Ghannouchi on 3 May 2018 in Opinion Plus
Opinion Plus

As the birthplace and sole success story of the Arab Spring thus far, Tunisia’s journey from dictatorship to revolution to nascent democracy is unique in the Arab region, explains Rached Ghannouchi.

Tunisia has had to overcome many challenges in the seven years since the 2011 revolution, but this is no different from every other country that has democratised itself. Tunisia today is a country where debate and dialogue are allowed to take place and flourish, enriching the democratic process and helping define policies that improve the lives of all our citizens.

The municipal elections on May 6 – the first democratic local elections in our history – are due to extend this dynamic to the local level, enabling political parties across the spectrum to compete to address local needs and improve standards of living across Tunisia’s 350 municipalities.

These local elections will help to entrench representative democracy in communities across Tunisia, which has emerged as both an example for the region and as a privileged partner for the EU in the Southern Neighbourhood.


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Leading a delegation to Brussels from 11-13 April, I had the opportunity to reinforce this partnership with EU partners such as HR/VP Federica Mogherini, and to emphasise that our country is proof that successful democratic governance can not only take root and flourish in the Arab World, but can open up new opportunities for cooperation on both sides of the Mediterranean.

The local level is where many issues affecting people’s daily lives are decided – although it has long been excluded from decision-making in Tunisia.

Decades of centralised rule have marginalised local authorities and forced citizens to travel long distances to access services and carry out basic administrative tasks. The May elections are the first step in a decentralisation process that will shift power from the centre, and are a vital milestone in our country’s transition.

The Ennahdha Party (“Renaissance” in Arabic) has strongly supported the decentralisation process.

"The May elections are the first step in a decentralisation process that will shift power from the centre, and are a vital milestone in our country’s transition"

The municipal elections will result in the election of over 7000 local representatives. What is particularly remarkable is that half of the candidates are women, thanks to gender parity rules set by Parliament which are more inclusive than in many established democracies.

Moreover, with under-24s making up more than a third of the population and over 47,600 registered candidates, we can also expect to see a high number of younger candidates winning office.

We pride ourselves in the fact that our party has the highest number of female candidates and that women and young people under 35 represent more than 65 per cent of Ennahdha’s candidates for the municipal elections.

These new voices promise to renew the political landscape and bring fresh perspectives that are closer to people’s concerns.

Despite many reforms in recent years, we continue to be one of the most centralised countries in the world. Local authorities represent a mere four per cent of public spending. Regions and municipalities still have little say over the policies and decisions that affect them.

While the new budget bill puts forward important economic reforms such as tax cuts for SMEs, support for farmers, new social programmes for poor families and aggressive anti-corruption measures, excessive centralisation remains a major obstacle to Tunisia’s development.

As highlighted in our meetings with Commission officials and friends in the European Parliament, we believe that expanding the powers, responsibilities and resources of local and regional authorities will help strengthen democracy and widen citizen participation.

"The development of effective and inclusive local institutions will bring democracy closer to citizens and show that Tunisia stands ready, with the support of its friends and allies in the EU, to prove that peaceful transition towards democracy is possible, despite all the odds"

The new Local Authorities Code sets out new participatory mechanisms, including local referenda, public meetings and the inclusion of civil society in council committees, in order to ensure citizens and civil society can participate in preparing, monitoring and evaluating local policies and programmes.

This is crucial to building trust and addressing the confidence gap that still exists after decades of dictatorship.

For many candidates, this will be their first experience with politics and public administration. Regions and municipalities must be helped to develop the human and financial resources they need to meet local needs and priorities.

This is an area in which the valuable assistance of our international partners and friends can play a crucial role.

Ennahdha welcomes EU and international support for decentralisation, particularly in the form of capacity building and increased cooperation between the EU and Tunisian government institutions at the local level to help develop the capacities of local government, which has long been deprived of powers and resources.

We also welcome the Electoral Observation Mission the EU is deploying to Tunisia, as it did during the elections of 2011 and 2014. In our discussions with head of the Mission MEP Fabio Massimo Castaldo, we reiterated our shared hope for these historic elections.

Technical support to the Independent Elections Commission is also vital, given the scale and unprecedented nature of these local elections.

Our vision is to see Tunisia progress towards decentralisation, with locally elected representatives delivering tangible improvements to people’s lives.

The development of effective and inclusive local institutions will bring democracy closer to citizens and show that Tunisia stands ready, with the support of its friends and allies in the EU, to prove that peaceful transition towards democracy is possible, despite all the odds.

About the author

Rached Ghannouchi is President of Tunisia’s Muslim Democrat Ennahdha Party

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