Municipal Elections and Local Democracy Bets in Tunisia

2017-11-21    |   

Municipal Elections and Local Democracy Bets in Tunisia

In the wake of the popular movements that swept Tunisia between December 17, 2010 and January 14, 2011, constitutional bodies and representative councils (including municipal and regional councils) were dissolved. Ad hoc bodies were assigned to temporarily run the affairs of the dissolved councils until local elections are held. Seven years have passed and local democracy is still postponed despite its close association with the demands raised during the popular movement. The demands called for the consolidation of citizenship rights and the values of participation and accountability, as well as the reduction of uneven development. Meanwhile, there is a constant deterioration at the local level of proximity services and supplies and overall living conditions. By indefinitely postponing municipal elections that were originally scheduled for December 17, 2017, efforts to consolidate local authority in Tunisia have gone nowhere.

On the legal front, some gains have been achieved. In the 1959 Constitution, the section on local authorities was a single article (Article 71) and did not refer explicitly to the concepts of decentralization and local democracy. In accordance with Basic Law No. 33 of May 14, 1975 on municipalities, and Basic Law No. 11 of February 4, 1989 on regional councils, these structures were placed under broad supervision, making them answerable to central authority. This has led to the setting up of decentralized structures (municipalities and regional councils) with weak powers and resources.

By contrast, section 7 of Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution is entirely devoted to [the question of] local authority. The section includes principles that consolidate the independence of local authorities within a unified state. This section, however, has yet to enter into force, pursuant to Article 148 of the transitional provisions chapter. In this vein, Basic Law No. 7 of 2017 was issued to revise and complete Basic Law No. 16 of 2014 on elections and referendum. The said law amended some articles and included sections or subsections related to municipal and regional elections. The basic draft law on local authorities no. 2017/48, however, remains under consideration by the Parliament's Committee on Management and Armed Forces' Affairs. This means that studying and voting for the enactment of this draft law will take a while. This text is significant for upcoming municipal councils. It includes various provisions pertaining to the organization of local authorities, their administrative and social activities, their different areas of specialization in developmental work, and their relations with foreign partners. It also includes provisions related to their property and finances which would achieve their independence [by properly outlining] their relationship with the state, with citizens, and each other. The draft law also addresses land preparation and construction.

Article 173 of Electoral Law No. 7 of 2017 stipulates that the provisions of Basic Law No. 33 of 1975 concerning municipalities shall continue to be in force “until the laws provided for in the chapter on the local authority have been ratified”. This is not acceptable because it contradicts the new requirements of the local authority that are set by the Constitution. Moreover, this would enhance the general impression that nothing has changed and would deepen the gap between citizens and upcoming municipal councils.

It is clear that the process of transitioning toward more local authority will not be easy. It must be gradual and has to take place in stages due to the magnitude of these radical changes and the cost of these reforms. It also requires centralization of the financial and administrative judiciary at the regional level, transfer of powers, and a comprehensive and careful review of the financial and property systems in a way that would ensure the independence of these groups, effective conduct, good governance, and the rule of law.

In this context, municipalities are considered the first level of citizen participation in local public affairs and the embodiment of the long-awaited democracy of proximity in Tunisia. On this basis, the new legal framework has sought to turn local [politics] into an area to promote citizenship rights as well as to ensure that municipal councils reflect the diversity of the local community.

1 – The Correlation Between Local Authority and the Broadening of Citizenship

Decentralization as an organizational form of the state is mentioned in the 2014 Constitution. Article 14, in the General Principles Section, stipulates that the state commits to support and adopt decentralization throughout the country within the unity of the state. This means that according to the principle of free administration, each local group shall run local departments independently as long as they respect the state's territorial and legal integrity. The seventh section of the Constitution was also devoted to local authority. It included 12 articles related to the means of rehabilitation of local authorities at the level of competencies and resources in a manner that enables the realization of democracy and local development, and narrows the gap between the Republic's bodies.

According to Article 131 of the Constitution, decentralization is embodied in local authorities at 3 levels: municipalities, districts, and regions, divided as determined by law. In accordance with Article 133 of the Constitution, these local authorities shall run elected councils. Municipal and regional councils are elected through general, free, direct, secret, fair, and transparent elections, whereas district councils are elected by members of municipal and regional councils.[1]

The 2014 Constitution takes the power of local authorities seriously. They are expected to enjoy [a good measure of independence] in terms of their specialized functions, financial and human resources, and the extent to which their elected councils are representative. They also have powers to effectively manage their local affairs independently and on the basis of engaging citizens in decision-making, responsibility sharing, and provision of the best services for citizens within the scope of national legislation. The principle of free administration is one of the constitutional guarantees of the autonomy of local authority.

It should be noted that implementing municipal regulation throughout the country has been a real challenge. Until recently, municipalities used to cover less than 10% of the national territory. Moreover, almost a third of the population lives outside areas placed under municipal regulation, thereby depriving them of one aspect of their citizenship. For decades, this has been a primary cause of unequal development in Tunisia. The prime minister issued a number of orders between 2015 and 2016 to expand the municipal territory and create 86 new municipalities, bringing the total to 350.[2] Each municipality represents an electoral district.

In conjunction with the expansion of the municipal area, the electoral law underlined the need for a real link between the voter and their electoral constituency. The law stipulated that voter registration be based on the “actual address” [of the voter] as stated on their national identification card. If the voter wishes to register in an electoral district other than the one stated on their national identification card, they must prove their connection to the district where they normally reside, conduct their economic activity, or are subject to taxes. Nomination shall also be submitted at the electoral district where the candidate is registered. These stipulations are intended to guard against any political parties' manipulation of the electoral body.

The new electoral law allows military and internal security forces to vote in local elections. This provision was fiercely debated in parliament. Opponents raised concerns over the risk this step poses to the democratic process in Tunisia. They believe such a step conflicts with national security requirements and the principle of neutrality of the military and security personnel, as stated in articles 18 and 19 of the Constitution, not to mention the technical difficulties considering the deployment of security and military forces on polling day. Proponents of this right maintained that local elections are less politicized than national elections. The former requires broad participation by citizens, allowing the largest number of them to register, pursuant to Article 21 of the Constitution and the requirements of general polling. The electoral law included a number of restrictions to ensure neutrality of the military and security institutions since they are the basis of democracy building. Military and internal security forces are barred from running for municipal and regional elections; they cannot participate in election campaigns, party meetings, or any activity related to elections. In the event of violation of these conditions, the law stipulates the maximum disciplinary penalty, which is dismissal.

The electoral law also provides for special procedures regarding the voting of members of the military and the internal security forces. Their voting is held before polling day at times set by the Independent High Electoral Commission. Their votes shall be counted in conjunction with the counting processes at all polling stations so as to avoid any political stigmatization of these bodies.

However, the participation rate in the upcoming municipal elections will be a real challenge, as many Tunisians are leaning towards a boycott against politicians who do not fulfill their promises amid a severe economic crisis.

2 – Who is Represented in the Upcoming Municipal Councils?

The Constitution and the electoral law set the conditions for candidacy in general and adopted positive measures to enhance the political representation of women, youth and persons with disabilities. Candidacy for membership of municipal or regional councils is considered a right for every Tunisian national who is at least 18 years of age and subject to any form of legal sanctioning.

The Constitution did not include concrete positive measures to support youth representation in centers of decision-making. Article 8 thereof reads: “Youth are an active force in building the nation…The state shall support them to assume responsibility and shall strive to broaden their participation in social, economic, cultural and political development”. Such wording is rhetorical and lacks legal precision. Article 133 of the Constitution on local authority stipulates that the electoral law ensure the representation of youth in the councils of local authorities. The electoral law does require candidate lists to include a female or male candidate less than 35 years of age among the top three candidates. For the remainder of candidates, every 6 should include at least a female or male candidate younger than 35.

An increase in the participation ratio of women is expected in the composition of the new municipal councils based on the principle of parity between women and men in the candidacy for municipal councils, and according to the alternation rule between them on the list. Candidacy for the membership of municipal and regional councils is also shared equally between women and men in the presidency of party and coalition lists that run in more than one electoral district.

Although the principle of vertical parity has been applied since 2011[3], it has not yielded the desired results, as chairmanship of the lists has often remained a male privilege. In the 2014 legislative elections, the percentage of female-headed lists was 12%. The results led to the election of 75 female deputies out of a total of 217, totaling 34%. That was a slight improvement compared to the results of the 2011 elections when only 7% of the females headed the lists and only 31% of the deputies in the National Constituent Assembly were females.

In order to integrate the most vulnerable social groups into the electoral process, Article 49/11 of the Electoral Law on Local Elections stipulates that every list must include within the top 10 candidates a female or male candidate with a physical disability who holds a disability card. In the event of failure to comply with this requirement, the article stipulates a financial penalty by depriving the list of the public grant.

Finally, the local polling based on the proportional representation system with the largest remainders and a threshold of 3% reflects a rupture with the majority voting system adopted by Tunisia since its independence. That system had enabled the ruling party to win the majority of seats in the elected councils and to a large extent contributed to the marginalization of opposition parties at the level of political representation nationally[4] and locally.[5]

The advantages of the proportional representation system is that it is more equitable and results in the creation of more representative and pluralistic elected bodies. On the other hand, this method may create some difficulties in the management of elected councils, especially in terms of the decision-making process.

The list-based polling system has been applied in Tunisia since its independence and is still in use today. The system of polling based on individual candidates has been disregarded for fear of empowering clan affiliation and tribalism. This reflects the political elite's will to consolidate modern political participation through parties and is based on competition between programs rather than people. Voting is based on closed lists without any room for deletion or change. It is also required that the number of candidates on each list be equal to the number of seats allocated to the respective electoral district.

The representative power of electoral lists constitutes an important stake in the upcoming municipal elections as political parties are accused of systematically acting in favor of the dominant elite. These parties are called upon to enable traditionally marginalized groups to peacefully present their demands and aspirations.


It is necessary to hasten the setting of a date for municipal elections. The elected councils will form the first brick in the edifice of local democracy. They will also act as a testing ground for participatory politics and the ability to reinforce local authority in a manner that will gradually push forward the course of development and improve proximity services. This will in turn build the lost trust between citizens and state institutions.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] Article 6 of the Basic Law of Regional Councils 1989: “The Regional Council shall be composed of the governor as the president, members of the House of Representatives who have been elected in the governorate's constituency; heads of municipalities in the governorate as members, and heads of village councils as members. The heads of regional departments shall also attend the council's meetings, in addition to a number of persons with experience in the economic, social, cultural and educational fields, appointed by the governor.”

[2] See, for example, Government Order No. 600 of 2016, dated May 26, 2016 on the creation of new municipalities in the governorates of Ariana, Ben Arous, Sidi Bouzid, Gabes, Medenine, Gafsa, Kebili; and Government Order No. 601 of 2016, dated May 26, 2016 on the creation of new municipalities in the governorates of Ben Arous, Manouba, Binzerte, Nabeul, Zaghouan, Beja, Jendouba, El Kef, Siliana, Kasserine, Sousse, Mahdia, Sidi Bouzid, Kairouan, Gafsa, Sfax, Gabes, Medenine, Kebili and Tataouine; and Government Order No. 602 of 2016, dated 26 May 2016 on modification of territorial boundaries of some municipalities.

[3] Article 16 of Decree No. 35, dated May 10, 2011 on the election of the National Constituent Assembly, “Candidates shall file their candidacy applications on the basis of parity between men and women. Lists shall be established in such a way to alternate between men and women. Lists that do not comply with this principle shall not be accepted except within the limit of the individual number of seats allocated to some districts”

[4] Opposition parties were only able to enter the House of Representatives in 1994 after the electoral code was revised to include a dose of proportionality in the majority voting system.

[5] For the municipal elections, the electoral code was revised on April 8, 1969 and many times since. The last of which was in 2009, to reduce the majority voting method by adopting proportional representation with preference given to the list that obtained the most votes, adopting 75% as a ceiling that cannot be exceeded for the list that gained majority votes.

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