Tunisia prepares for first free municipal elections


Tunis (AFP)

Millions of Tunisians head to the polls on Sunday for their first free municipal elections, seen as another milestone on the road to democracy in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

Yet while the North African country has been lauded for its transition from decades of dictatorship, the post-revolution authorities have struggled to improve living standards and tackle corruption.

Observers expect a high abstention rate in the polls, which come seven years after mass protests toppled the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisians who had high hopes after the revolution have been left demoralised in the face of high inflation, stubborn unemployment and arrangements between political parties which have hindered democratic debate at the national level.

The country was also hit by a wave of protest at the start of the year, over the government's new austerity budget.

According to observers, the two political heavyweights -- the Islamist party Ennahdha and the Nidaa Tounes party led by President Beji Caid Essebsi -- are the only ones to have presented lists in all cities, and could win a large proportion of seats.

After being postponed four times, the one-round local elections will begin at 8:00 am (0700 GMT) on Sunday.

Around five million voters are eligible to vote, with about 57,000 candidates standing across 350 municipalities.

The local polls are the first not held under the one-party rule of the regime, noted Michael Ayari, a researcher with the International Crisis Group think tank.

"There have never been free and competitive municipal elections," he said.

Tunisia is seen as a rare success story of the Arab Spring compared with other countries shaken by uprisings such as Libya and Yemen which are still deep in turmoil.

A new constitution was adopted and legislative and presidential polls held in 2014.

But Tunisia still faces myriad economic, social and security challenges.

The nation remains under a state of emergency imposed after a series of jihadists attacks in 2015 and a 30,000-strong security force is being brought out to secure the elections.

- More local powers -

The vote marks the first tangible step towards decentralisation, a move written into Tunisia's post-revolution constitution after regions were marginalised by a hyper-centralised power base under the former regime.

Municipalities had few decision-making powers under the one-party system of Ben Ali, under which cronyism was common.

After his overthrow, cities were managed by special delegations nominated by the government which often failed to satisfy Tunisians.

But at the end of April a code for regional authorities was voted in, which for the first time allows them to freely govern as independent bodies.

"Under Ben Ali, and up until now, for a community to have the power to repaint a school... it had to go through the supervising authority -- the ministry of education or health. All of that will disappear," said Lamine Ben Ghazi from Al Bawsala, which monitors Tunisian political life.

But the signficance of the new powers has failed to gain prominence ahead Sunday's vote, with a lack of awareness as the legal change came late in the campaign.

- Risk of abstentions -

An indication for Sunday came with the early voting of police and soldiers at the end of April, with turnout just 12 percent of those registered.

For Youssef Charif, a political analyst, the risk of high absentation is an "enormous problem for the municipal councils, which have already limited rights and would have less legitimacy and therefore more difficultly changing things".

But there could still be surprises, with the participation of a number of independent lists that could shake up the country's balance of power.

Ben Ghazi remained hopeful that the elections can give Tunisian politics a new lease of life.

"They will create a new wave of politically engaged women and men," he said.

The municipal polls will be followed by legislative and presidential votes in 2019.