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Who really won Tunisia’s first democratic local elections?

- June 1, 2018
A supporter, right, of an independent local party distributes election leaflets in l’Ariana, outside Tunis, 0n May 4.  (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

On May 6, Tunisia held its first democratic local elections more than seven years after the collapse of the authoritarian regime. While these elections signify an important step for local governance, the intense period of candidate recruitment that preceded them also offers a unique window into party decision-making.

During the two months before the elections, I conducted more than 40 interviews with party leaders at the national and local level and candidates from partisan and independent lists to explore how they recruited candidates. The results hint at why some parties and lists garnered more votes and how politics may be changing.

Tunisia’s restrictive conditions of running

Tunisia’s two main parties — Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes — have been ruling in a loose coalition since November 2014, making it challenging for smaller parties and independents to run. According to the February 2017 Municipal Elections Law, closed lists run for local elections, and each list should have as many candidates as the number of seats in the municipal council. Half of each list should be women, with each man in the list followed by a woman (“vertical parity”).

Independents are not allowed to run individually; they have to be part of a party, alliance or nonpartisan (independent) list. In other words, if you want to run for the municipal council in Sousse — the third-biggest city in Tunisia with a population of about 270,000 — you have to find at least 44 other people willing to run with you, half of whom must be women, then all agree on a list ranking that cannot be altered by voters.

Preparing lists proved challenging even for larger parties. Only Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda were able to present lists in all 350 municipalities. Popular Front, an alliance of leftist parties, had 120. The Democratic Current, a progressive party that emphasizes Arab nationalism, and Machroua Tounes, a secularist party formed by Nidaa dissidents, each ran 69 lists. Civil Alliance, a group of 11 smaller secular, social democratic and liberal parties, had 36 lists running. All told, 19 other smaller parties ran 261 lists, and 860 independent lists were in the race. At least one independent list was present in 319 municipalities, of which 38 municipalities had at least five independent lists.

From the supply side, we see a decent interest in local elections despite the difficulties of running.

Contrasting candidate recruitment of major parties

Interviews with officials suggest that parties used different strategies for candidate recruitment. Ennahda’s national headquarters instructed all local offices to open half of their lists to people who have never been Ennahda members. Party officials say this was a requirement made at their 10th Congress of infitah (opening). In regions where Ennahda is not traditionally strong, the party recruited surprising names, such as unionist women, former high-level bureaucrats and representatives of religious minorities. Aimed at improving the party’s local and international image, this strategy seems to have worked. Ennahda garnered 29 percent of the votes, preserving its vote share from 2014, despite the influx of independent lists.

Nidaa, on the other hand, relied more heavily on existing party members to fill its lists. After the 2014 elections, the central organization and parliamentary bloc fragmented around who would lead the party. The local lists reflected these internal leadership battles. Many Nidaa lists also included members of the hegemonic RCD party of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

In some localities, candidates who were offered subpar rankings on Nidaa lists instead formed independent lists. The lack of coherence seems to have cost it significant voter support. Nidaa’s vote share decreased to 21 percent, falling from its 38 percent share in the 2014 legislative elections.

Failures and successes in alliance-forming

Some posited that municipal elections could be a good opportunity to unite secular progressive parties and form lasting alliances. These efforts largely failed. Negotiations among Democratic Current, People’s Movement and Republican Party, a potential leftist and Arab nationalist alliance, all quickly petered out.

Smaller parties from social democratic and liberal tendencies had slightly better luck, with 11 coming together to form the “Civil Alliance” that planned to run in 48 municipalities. However, once formed, the alliance had difficulties agreeing on names and rankings. In many instances, only two or three parties made its lists, while others left for independent lists. Damaged by these struggles, Civil Alliance ran in 36 municipalities and garnered 1.7 percent of the votes. Even with a weakened Nidaa, it remains difficult to forming a unified secular-democratic alternative.

Popular Front was formed as an alliance of leftist parties in 2012 and has been slowly turning into a coherent party. Both national and local coordinators told me they aimed to prioritize young and loyal activists in their lists. While others viewed Popular Front as “young protesters who do not engage in politics constructively,” its leaders aimed to change this image through local activist training. But relying on loyalists only earned the alliance the same share of votes — 4 percent — as in 2014 legislative elections.

How independent were “independent” lists?

Independent lists garnered more than 30 percent of the votes and in some key municipalities won up to 60 percent. Some suggest that this is a good indicator of Tunisian voters’ willingness to try political alternatives, but were the many (860) nominally independent lists really that nonpartisan?

Since the vertical parity rule failed to ensure gender equality in parliament, the municipal elections law introduced a “horizontal parity,” in which half of any party or alliance’s lists had to be headed by women. Local party coordinators debated which municipalities were more conservative or competitive and therefore “deserved” a male candidate to head the list. Some smaller parties found a loophole by running as “independent” lists in the municipalities where they insisted on having a male head.

Other independent lists were formed by dissidents, mainly from Nidaa, who did not like their rankings in their ideal party lists. In some instances, Nidaa and Ennahda constructed alternative, nominally independent lists to place more supporters on higher, winnable ranks.

The truly independent lists were formed without any intervention of local party offices. Tunisia’s many young people, unemployed graduates and civil society activists wanted to be part of the local governance.

Local elections in Tunisia illustrated how parties expand and consolidate, or fail to do so, through candidate recruitment. As old and new research shows, democratic survival usually depends on a balance of power between parties. But this election also highlights the challenges and potential for democratic politics outside parties.

Aytug Sasmaz is a PhD candidate in government at Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter @aytugs.