Haifa Mzalouat, a Tunisian journalist writing for Inkyfada. Follow her on Twitter @HaifaMz.
For the past seven years, Tunisian municipal elections have been repeatedly postponed due to various difficulties within the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) and the government’s delays in drafting a new Code on Local Authorities, which parliament passed only ten days before the elections. Significantly, the elections were touted as a way to give concrete powers to local representatives, especially in the poorer regions, and to sensitize the population to a new, decentralized model.
However, as predicted by opinion polls, the abstention rate was extremely high. According to the preliminary official results from the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE), total participation reached only 35.6 percent of registered voters. Among other factors, voters’ disengagement stems heavily from a lack of trust toward the electoral process and the two main parties, Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes. This gave a slight benefit to smaller political forces such as the Democratic Current or the Popular Front, which collectively achieved 13.42 percent of the vote.
Thanks to its active core voter base, Ennahda managed to beat its rival Nidaa Tounes, obtaining 29.68 percent of the seats and winning a plurality in Tunis and Sfax, the two largest cities in the country. However, the Islamist party has lost momentum and voters since the last legislative election. Furthermore, it will be forced to build alliances in many municipalities, including Tunis, where it did not manage to secure an absolute majority.
Nidaa Tounes’ lower vote share of 22.17 percent—compared to 37.56 percent in the 2014 legislative elections—shows that many are critical of the policies of this dominant political force. Its coalition with Ennahda, its failure to improve the socio-economic situation of the country, and its internal divisions pushed voters away from the so-called “modernist” party.
More surprisingly, the elections showed a breakthrough of independent lists, which together accumulated 32.9 percent of votes and thus gained the highest number of seats. However, this result does not necessarily show political preference for independent candidates as much as it displays discontent toward Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes. Given the discrepancies in their ideologies and programs, it is hard to predict whether or not these movements will manage to form a coherent opposition force.
Independents’ real power to shape policy will depend on the alliances they form on individual municipal councils, whose partisan composition will vary by locality, and on their local allies’ political strategies for the 2019 legislative elections.