As Tunisia veers even further away from its constitution and democratic path, supporting local governance and democratically elected municipal councils may be an effective way to sustain the few remaining democratic institutions in the country. Doing so may bring about political and service-delivery reform, as well as provide a citizen-based approach to governance, a key promise that Tunisian President Kais Saied has struggled to fulfill.
On July 25, 2021, Saied froze the activities of Tunisia’s democratically elected legislative body, stripping the political system down to just the presidency and municipalities, the smallest local structures.
Saied has embarked on clear attacks directed at local governance, and his allies have called for the dissolution of elected municipal councils, as they represent the 2014 political system which Saied claims is rejected by the general public. Despite this, municipal councils have withstood nine months of autocratic rule thus far. This suggests either that municipalities are not significant in Saied’s political vision, or that they have demonstrated institutional resilience and can serve as democracy’s safety net. I argue for the latter hypothesis. Local level politics is, in fact, at the heart of Saied’s political promises, and his political opponents (mainly parties and organized groups) are active at that level. For this reason, local power—represented in the form of elected municipal councils and yet to be elected regional councils—may actually present a unique political opportunity to move forward towards restoring a democratic trajectory.
Municipalities are the first of three tiers (along with regions and districts) comprising local power, as envisioned by the 2014 constitution. Local power had been proposed as a response to the pressing issue of regional disparities and hyper-centralization of power. Despite the achievements of post-colonial Tunisia in laying the foundation for educational and health reforms, the central government had contributed across decades to clear disparities between costal and inner regions, and urban and rural zones. It also recreated centralization on a regional level, creating an additional layer of marginalization among cities and villages belonging to a given region. Decentralizing power has not only presented a different approach to regional and local administrative organization, but it has also set development and urban planning at the heart of its mission, and citizen participation at the heart of its decision-making through participatory democracy. It has promised an answer to rising criticism of centralized representative democracy, and has the potential to upgrade governance in a way that is physically and politically closer to the reality on the ground.
When Saied was elected in 2019, his success as a non-partisan presidential candidate with no anchoring in governmental structures nor visible connections to traditional economic actors was largely welcomed by those who voted for him in the first round of presidential elections, and later, by the public who viewed him as the only political actor who could counterbalance the corruption and nepotism that had plagued Tunisian politics. At that point, Saied promised a complete change in the political system, namely “grassroots construction”—or grassroots democracy—promising elections that represented the people through direct democracy, in contrast to representative democracy, which he argued, failed the revolution and the people. Saied’s program proposed that elections at the narrowest local level (i’mada) be held, resulting in elected local councils, which would then create a pool of representatives from which regional council members would be drafted, and from which a national level legislative body would be created. Citizens would also be able to withdraw confidence from elected members during the mandate.
Upon first glance, it appears that Saied’s program promises a change that local power was designed to deliver when it was conceived of in 2014: a political system that is closer to the people. However, Saied’s interest in municipalities does not stem from a belief in their potential to deliver on his electoral and political promises, but rather as structures that challenge his political aims.
It is important to note that political actors failed to fully establish local governance by failing to hold regional elections and establish districts, instead settling for holding only municipal elections in 2018. This left municipalities in a political vacuum, and citizens with a bitter taste of unfulfilled promise with no drastic change in their local realities. However, despite these shortcomings, Tunisia was left with 350 elected municipal councils and more than 7,000 elected municipal members representing political parties, civil society organizations, and independent actors. Tunisia also adopted the local collectivities code, the legal framework governing all aspects of local governance; the code is the largest legal text, in terms of volume and impact, since the revolution. This text was claimed by Saied as an obstacle to holding municipalities accountable, amid a severe waste collection disaster in the region of Sfax that came as a result of the shutdown of the Agareb dump. What Saied saw as a legal obstacle however is evidence that democracy was sustained on a local level through the legitimacy of elections and legal text, suggesting a form of resilience that was absent on a national level. Despite Saied’s de facto suspension of the constitution on September 22, 2021, and his fierce criticism of the political scene at the time, presidential decrees were published to call for the organization of municipal elections in multiple municipalities that faced the resignation of their elected councils. The first to be published following the declaration of the state of exception was on October 20, a sign of continuing on the normal course as described by electoral law—a law which Saied is also pledging to change.
Though some argue that Saied’s attitude towards municipalities suggests indifference and that he does not consider them obstacles to his goals, his restructuring of the October 2021 cabinet points towards a completely different reality. The ministry of local affairs, which had been leading the decentralization reform on an executive level since 2016, was eliminated as a ministry and its services were moved to the ministry of interior (as they had been prior to 2016). This dissolution does not technically nor administratively impact local power, for municipalities have administrative and financial independence. However, the political connotations of this move are striking, especially as Saied changed the heads of delegations, who are the representatives of the central state on a local level, to name members from his electoral campaign.
The power balance between Saied and elected municipal councils suggests institutional resilience of the latter, as they have not yet succumbed to Saied’s power grab. This resilience is the result of an accumulation of democratic “credit” through layers of democratic construction. Municipalities serve as a standing example of how independent council members may be elected on a local level; 32.9% of elected members currently have no partisan affiliation, for example. This distance has helped municipalities escape Saied’s criticisms against the parliament and partisan politics.
Saied has also been unable to attribute much political failure to municipal councils, as they have yet to complete their first mandate. This has kept municipalities in a pilot phase that thus makes them difficult to compare to more established entities like the parliament. There is little to be drawn from the collective memory. This is also linked to the nature of municipalities, which puts them in direct contact with citizens in most cases (apart from metropoles), and accordingly results in experiences that are specific to the local circumstances and dynamics, making it difficult for Saied to build on symbolic images of failure as he did with the government and parliament. Municipalities are too specific for their performance to be instrumentalized on a national level.
Finally, the local collectivities code has provided an additional layer of protection to municipalities. This is not only due to its nature as a law (almost irrelevant in light of Saied’s usurpation of legislative power), but in the fact that it was the result of a multi-actor push for decentralization reform. The drafting and passing of the code served as a testimony to a real democratic exercise, even in the face of challenges and delays. The regional consultations that were organized by the ministry of interior around the then-draft code widened the popular ownership of the legal text by central and local actors alike. This is unique to the code, and few, if any, other legal texts that passed since the constitution enjoy a similar history of regional debate and participation.
As Saied continues to usurp power, threatening not only the parliament and government, but now the judiciary and civil society, it will be important to watch what steps he takes, attempts to take, or does not take in the local governance space. Municipalities are well-positioned to keep at least a limited democratic and representative space available. Accordingly, supporting them and investing in their work is critical. Any future engagement with Saied regarding his proposed roadmap must include and call for the organization of regional elections. Not only does this represent a concrete commitment to the constitution, but it may also create a space for political contestation in a manner that does not tear down democratic institutions along the way, and instead allows for representative and local democracy even in the midst of extreme political uncertainty.
Chaima Bouhlel is a former Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on decentralization in North Africa.