Tasnim Abderrahim, a research assistant at the African Institutions Program at the European Center for Development Policy Management and the Center of Mediterranean and International Studies. Follow her on Twitter @Tasnim_Tn.
Before Youssef Chahed came to office in August 2016, he headed the Ministry of Local Affairs, which sought to usher in a new, decentralized governance model. Devolving power to lower tiers of government is a complicated long-term process, which explains the government’s relatively slow progress. Some promising steps have been taken, particularly scheduling elections to replace the current appointed local councils with ones that have greater legitimacy and authority, but the challenges remain significant. When Chahed came to office, the municipal elections—initially scheduled for October 2016 then pushed to March 2017—were indefinitely postponed due to parliament’s failure to pass an amended electoral law, which was finally adopted in February 2017. This allowed the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) to set the date for the municipal elections for December 17, 2017.
Preparations for the elections have so far included the Ministry of Justice’s decision to establish twelve administrative courts in the regions. These courts will be responsible for resolving election-related disputes, investigating abuses of power by the local administrations, and mediating potential administrative conflicts after the elections. However, the specific organization and mandate of these courts is still unclear. The Ministry of Justice has also announced it will recruit more judges and administrative staff to the Court of Audit, the court that oversees campaign financing and ensures a transparent and efficient management of local resources, and will provide it with the necessary technical and financial resources. The Tunisian Association of Judges, however, criticized these decisions as “unilateral” for not involving judges in identifying priorities and for not adequately responding to their demands regarding their increasing workload.
The lack of a clear and efficient communication strategy is another key weakness in the government’s management of the local election process. Apart from ISIE’s current efforts to encourage citizens to register for the elections, not much is being done to increase their knowledge and engagement in this process. Setting a communication strategy is critical to establishing the credibility of the government and ensuring public buy-in of decentralization and other reforms.
Just as important, progress toward adopting the Code on Local Authorities remains unsatisfactory. While the election of local councils that enjoy legitimacy is urgently needed, the absence of this necessary legislative framework could result in confusion about the new councils’ expected duties. The Chahed government favors the organization of the municipal elections before the end of 2017, as scheduled. Yet if the municipal elections are organized before the adoption of the Code on Local Authorities, which is a very likely scenario, there will be no clear mechanism for governance at the local level, which could undermine the whole effort and potentially undermine the entire transitional process.
Moreover, new municipal councils would constitute only one level of the three decentralized levels that are established by the new constitution, together with regional and district councils. The regional elections were initially planned to take place simultaneously with the municipal elections, but ISIE later pushed them to sometime in 2018. Elections might be pushed further out still, and the government will still need to delineate the boundaries of districts, which will each consist of several regions (which correspond to Tunisia’s governorates).
A successful transfer of power and responsibilities to the local level is critical to enhance accountability, transparency, citizen engagement, and economic development. A decentralized system facilitates developing and employing measures to monitor local government, such as involving civil society in meetings and opening up to the media. Under a decentralized model, local development becomes driven by citizens instead of the central government, which prioritizes different issues and is likely to overlook local potential.