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Tunisia’s 2023 Local Elections: How the “Bottom-up Structure” Will Strengthen Kais Saied’s One-man Rule

Tunisia’s upcoming local elections, the first to be held under the country’s new constitution, are set to take place on Dec. 24, 2023. The announcement of the date, made by President Kais Saied during a cabinet meeting in late September — and overriding an earlier announcement by Tunisia’s Independent High Electoral Commission — came roughly six months after the publication of presidential decrees, in March 2023, that dismantled the country’s first ever democratically elected municipal councils shortly before the end of their mandate. These decrees not only puts an end to speculation about the date of the next municipal elections, but also to the entire decentralization process initiated in 2018.

The upcoming local elections will result in the establishment of local, regional, and district councils and will allow for the formation of the second chamber of parliament, known as “the National Council of Regions and Districts.”

The new “bottom-up structure” is finally revealed

President Saied has never been in favor of the decentralization process, and one of the first steps he took after the constitutional coup on July 25, 2021, was to abolish the Ministry of Local Affairs and attach the 350 elected local councils to the Ministry of the Interior, reminiscent of the Ben Ali era. During his presidential campaign in 2019, he conceptualized a model — “building democracy from the bottom up” — that anchors the legitimacy of power at the local level within the framework of his utopian vision of a direct democracy.

The legal texts issued by President Saied in March 2023 finally defined the outlines of this project and established a legal basis for its structure, providing details that had never been officially spelled out by the president during his time in office. Previously, political activists close to him and members of his political campaign had floated ideas, which fueled speculation about the project for several years.

A unilateral, exclusionary approach

Since the July 2021 coup, in which the president dissolved parliament and the government began governing by decree, he has adopted a unilateral approach to exercising power, excluding all other major national actors, whether political or civil, including the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the most powerful union in the country. During the drafting of the new constitution in 2022, any effort at dialogue was also rejected; the president was the document’s sole author and it granted him extensive powers at the expense of the head of government and parliament.

The legal and political process of developing the “bottom-up structure” took place in the same climate of exclusion, within a framework marked by a total lack of transparency and participation. While last fall’s legislative elections theoretically were meant to end the state of exception and entrust legislative power to elected parliamentarians, the enactment of these presidential decrees, which bring about a major change in the political territorial division of the country, shows that the president continues to govern by decree, sending a clear message about who holds the real legislative power in Tunisia.

Toward a centralized model of governance and a consolidated one-person rule

The president has always presented himself as the defender of disadvantaged classes and regions and has always embraced their demands for the right to development. The excessive centralization that characterized the territorial and political organization before the 2011 revolution has shown its limits in achieving equitable development and has led to pronounced regional disparities. This is considered one of the most decisive factors leading to the outbreak of the Tunisian revolution.

The philosophy of Saied’s project is based on a “bottom-up structure,” where the objective is to rebuild Tunisia’s political system from the bottom to the top — from the local to the center — so that public policies at all levels express the will of the people, and decisions emanate from the base, especially in remote regions away from the center. However, the presidential decrees of March 2023 contradict this philosophy entirely. The elected officials of the local, regional, and district councils will not be the true actors and policymakers, since these councils have no financial or administrative autonomy, and budgets and development policies will be developed by the executive, primarily exercised by the president himself. The National Council of Regions and Districts, which represents the second chamber of parliament, will have the theoretical role of drawing up development projects for the regions. However, the legislative power is subordinate to the direct will of the president. Local decision-making is therefore subject to the authority of the center.

This is a clear contradiction of the decentralization project as defined in the 2014 constitution, rescinded by Saied, whereby local councils can manage local interests and affairs in accordance with the principle of self-government (free administration), allowing for administrative and financial autonomy from the executive. For the first time, the municipal councils elected in 2018 were able to develop and manage their own budgets and actively involve their citizens in the process of formulating local public policies.

In this sense, the project places the keys to the management of local affairs back in the hands of the central government, which will be the ultimate decision-maker. Tunisians will therefore not be electing political decision-makers with the prerogative and means to improve the quality of life in their localities, but rather choosing representatives who can only propose and suggest, as the text of the law clearly explains.

More fragile and explosive state-society relations

The project revealed by the president is likely to further exacerbate the already fragile relationship between state and society, and further erode confidence in state institutions and their leaders. Civic and political actors are already expecting a very low turnout in the December local elections. In the last legislative elections, turnout was at an all-time low of 11%.

The creation of participatory mechanisms by these elected councils is not the solution to regain citizens’ trust. The fact that decision-making is no longer in the hands of local elected officials will render any mechanism or initiative of citizen participation absurd and useless. The youth in particular, who will likely feel unrepresented and find no meaningful way to influence or participate in decision-making to improve their living conditions, both socially and economically, will increasingly be inclined to turn away from formal political channels. Instead, they will likely look to other forms of engagement in public life — ones that are not always peaceful or constructive.

Source: Middle East Institute