Long awaited municipal elections in Tunisia were marred by low turnout and high abstention rates reflecting pathy and widespread discontent at the slow pace of change seven years after the revolution.

The abstentions from Sunday’s municipal elections sent a frustrated ‘No’ message to all sides of the political spectrum in a determined show of public mistrust. 

“A negative sign, a strong message...for politicians,” as Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed admitted publicly after the closing of the polls where the turnout rate was much lower than rates recorded in prior post-revolution elections. 

The general voter turnout was a paltry 33.7 percent nationwide, with just 26 percent in Tunis, according to the Independent Electoral Commission (ISIE).

While the election was highly anticipated as the next step in the North African nation’s democratic transition following the 2011 uprising, what Tunisia found was a population largely suffering from the malaise of the economic situation with tough austerity measures, 15 percent unemployment and inflation touching 8 percent.

Postponed four times, the polls were finally held this Sunday, at a time when Tunisia is slowly passing through its fragile democratic process. At the beginning of the year, the country was rocked by a wave of protests over a new austerity budget introduced by the government.

Seven years after the fall of former dictator Ben Ali, Tunisians increasingly realise the revolution has not brought the change they hoped to see. Much has been promised, little achieved. A lot of them think the municipal polls will not change anything.

Young voters were noticeably absent from the polling stations, especially in the capital, with mostly elderly people voting. After voting in parliamentary and presidential elections since 2011, and seeing their demands unfulfilled, much of the youth boycotted the local vote or voted “white”.

The general sentiment seemed to be: why should we young Tunisians who are either jobless or unemployed graduates vote after all? Today, they are struggling with the same problems as before 2011.

Many feel that the leaders they elected in 2014 have not delivered on their promises and that political elites and successive governments have not acted in the interest of the country. Get-out-the vote efforts organised by electoral authorities focusing on young people failed. The fact that half of the 57,000 candidates running for office in the country’s 350 municipalities were young people (and women) made little difference to them.

The other factor that may explain the low electoral participation figure is the little awareness of municipal elections—the first of their kind to be held in Tunisia under democratic rule—which many see as less important than the parliamentary and presidential ones.

In reality, they are a key step in devolving power beyond Tunis and handing more powers to town councils across the country. Giving local authorities more power would help correct imbalances between the capital’s decision-making monopoly and other regions historically marginalised by an overreaching centralised power.

Political elites hoped that voting in local elections would allow regional authorities to freely govern as independent bodies, and give citizens an opportunity to play a role in the decision-making process. 

Just days before the elections, the Tunisian parliament adopted the Local Government Code, a new law which MPs say marks a turning point for the establishment and for local governance, as set by the constitution.

The legal change however came late in the electoral campaign at the end of April, which may have gone un-noticed ahead of Sunday’s election thus leaving many voters unaware of the significance of the new powers, and not motivated enough to vote.

Some Tunisians are unsure if and how decentralisation will work out, they doubt that ordinary people have sufficient understanding of it, or even officials elected in the municipalities have set clear work plans still. After all, it is a new experiment on Tunisia’s democratic journey.

But the elections mean a first tangible effort to engage citizens in decision-making over local matters, enabling them to follow, support or block decisions, shifting away from the limited powers municipal councils had under the one-party system of Ben Ali.

That said, there are concerns that low voter turnout—or high abstention at over 66 percent—may hamper decentralisation efforts as municipalities would have less legitimacy, and find greater difficulty operating.

With greater turnout municipal elections would be a good indicator of where the country is heading politically ahead of presidential and legislative elections (scheduled for next year).

The two ruling coalition parties, Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes, which are the only ones to have presented lists in all cities, are set to win most seats. However, the surprise element in these elections could be the participation of independent lists, with almost half the candidate lists coming from independent groups.

Whether that might have a potential to shake up the country's balance of power is too early to tell. Regardless, there are hopes that these first democratic elections will see a new generation of politicians (men and women) elected into office.

Then, if there will be good implementation on the local level, and elected officials in the various municipal councils show adequate competence and credibility, that will determine the success (or not) of Tunisia’s ambitious decentralisation initiative.

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