Emir Sfaxi, a Fulbright fellow at American University and a Public Policy consultant. Follow him on Twitter @EmirSX.
Despite a low turnout of 35.6 percent (compared to the 69 percent turnout in the 2014 legislative elections), the results of Tunisia’s May 6 municipal elections were positive overall. There was large representation for youth and women, local leaders emerged at the head of non-partisan and independent lists, fairness and transparency rules were respected even if minor incidents were reported, and local civil society organizations mobilized to monitor the elections. This provides hope that the only “success” of the Arab Spring can sustain democracy despite a difficult political climate and a suffocating economic situation.
Notably, a new generation of youth leaders is emerging, many of whom were already heavily involved in civil society organizations. Youth under 35 years old won 37.57 percent of the seats (and those aged 35 to 45 won an additional 25.87 percent). The high numbers of youth elected to local roles shows the increased capacity building and support that international aid and civil society organizations had called for to offer youth fertile ground for political participation. Yet paradoxically, despite high youth representation, there was low youth turnout, and observers raised their concerns about the absence of the youth at the polls.
Furthermore, women were elected to represent 47 percent of the municipal council seats—even though according to the Independent High Authority for Election statistics, women formed only 29.7 percent of the heads of electoral lists, which must alternate male and female candidates. This will help women take on leadership roles in these councils as well. Souad Abderrahim, head of the Ennahda list for the municipality of Tunis, expressed her willingness to become a mayor following her election. This has generated some controversy, not only because she would be the first woman to become the mayor of the capital, but because Abderrahim faces heavy criticism for her views that single mothers should not benefit from social help.
Other big winners of these elections were the independent lists, which secured 2,367 seats (32.9 percent of the vote). Even though these lists won the plurality of seats, they likely still underestimate the appeal of independent candidates. Ennahda in particular predicted this scenario and brilliantly capitalized on it by opening their lists to independent figures and local leaders to run under their flag and benefit from their financial and logistical support to run their campaigns. This paid off for Ennahda, which came in second with 2,135 seats (29.68 percent of the vote).
However, the low turnout and the favor shown for nonpartisan candidates as an alternative should be taken seriously by leading political parties. The municipal elections could still be considered as a test for the upcoming legislative and presidential elections of 2019. The country seems to be at its lowest point economically, with inflation reaching record levels and the dinar facing continued devaluation, which both limit investment and job creation. If the economy does not recover, dissatisfaction with the status quo will increase voter apathy and make it harder for Tunisian democracy to sustain itself.