Post-Arab Spring Tunisia: Decentralisation and Democracy

My notes from the first session, providing a critical understanding of decentralisation, and placing that within the context of Tunisia and Indonesia:

flagFethi Mansouri, Alfred Deakin Institute
The Democratic Process in Tunisia: Conditions for Consolidations and Future Outlook
This paper addresses interconnected issues around democratic transition in the Arab world. There were a number of key structural and historical factors that ushered in the Arab Spring, and there have been different outcomes in Arab countries that have experienced popular uprising.

In the social sciences the notion of ‘Arab exceptionalism’ or ‘democratic deficit’ in the Arab world has predominated. Instead of democratisation, we’ve seen ‘authoritarian upgrading’ in the Arab world.This is a failure to reform, and states instead make key concessions.

In contrast to deterministic assumptions that drive mainstream social science, we should understand the upheavals associated with political transformations as inherently fluid, unpredictable, and not easily ‘theorisable’.

We’re seeing social and economic failures: the Arab Spring erupted in part because of the cumulative failures of successive economic policies, and not just because of the lack of political reforms. In particular, there’s been a “pursuit of an ill-suited neo-liberal approach whilst ignoring many authentic and successful Eastern/Asian models”. This has lead to rising poverty and inequality.

The Arab political landscape is actually highly diverse in terms of political actors, activism, history. Mansouri argues for an understanding of the trajectories of the revolutions from a Gramscian viewpoint, in terms of the strength of pre-existing civil society. Here, we can see three kinds of Arab regimes with regards to revolution:

  • homogenous initiators (states that trigger revolutionary contagions)
  • divided authoritarian states (those that follow the initiators and experience prolonged violence),
  • divided wealthy monarchical regimes (which may be able to avoid, or at least forestall, revolution).

Outcomes are, therefore, considerably different.

Monsouri identifies several key variables in predicting outcomes of democratic transition:

  • civil society,
  • the role of military institutions,
  • religion/politics nexus,
  • and external influences.

The transition towards stable democratic governance is characterised by three key stages:

  • a breakdown of authoritarianism,
  • a transition phase,
  • and the onset of a democratisation process which is supposed to produce stable and ‘democratic rule’.

Tunisia has seen deep ideological polarisation as they move towards this third phase.

Key achievements in Tunisia:

  • Adoption of the new constitution in 2014, which emphasises that Tunisia is a civil state with its legitimacy based in the will of the people, and which establishes freedom of conscience and belief,
  • A focus on gender parity not only in election lists, but also in who’s at the top of lists,
  • Transitional justice continues to be a divisive issue: focuses on key aspects of reconciliation, including how to construct historical memory, and how to engage in reparation and reconciliation.

Tunisia also faces important challenges:

  • lack of a clear and practical plan for improving the economic situation,
  • the rise of extremist violence,
  • growing voter/citizen apathy.

Five years after the revolution, 75% of Tunisians have a negative perceptions of political parties, 67% of Tunisians see political parties as close to them in terms of understanding their needs, and only 53% see political parties as useful for democratisation, 48% think that parties are not useful at all for dealing with local and regional development issues.

Voters want politicians to honour promises, fight social exclusion and poverty, create jobs, and do something about the rising cost of living. Security issues are not on voters’ lists of top issues at the moment. This indicates that dealing with local issues in a decentralised way is vital for establishing democracy in Tunisia.

Mansouri argues that in order to address the challenges Tunisia faces, we need to steer away from deterministic assumptions, incorporate informal processes (including civil society), and be mindful of changing political discourse.

Bligh Grant, The University of Technology Sydney
Decentralisation in the Australian Context: The Promise—and Failure—of the Recent White Paper Experience
This paper focuses on local government, which Grant argues is an eternal issue. We tend to think of Australia’s centre as being ‘hollowed out’ – we focus on the seaboard, and especially the eastern seaboard, in our understandings of Australia. However, it’s important to understand that Australia is a divided sovereignty, and has been since 1901.

We tend to think of Australia as very stable, a western advanced democracy. But Australia has massive socioeconomic disadvantage once you go outside the cities. We need to understand the political fragmentation of Australia. State governments in Australia are very good at looking after the cities. On the other hand, rural areas are often neglected, and there are very strong class divisions in these areas. We should also note that before European colonisation, Australia’s political landscape was highly decentralised.

In Australia, there’s been a recent ‘discussion paper’ released around decentralisation, with suggestions that ended up being canned by the Turnbull government.

All local government people champion the idea of ‘subsidiarity’ (though its specific meaning is contested). There are two key streams in the mainstream understanding of subsidiarity:

  • Deontological (duty-based) meanings: every tier of government has a proper role. This is quite a moral stance.
  • Consequentialist approaches: more economically-based.

Grant and Drew have developed a normative ideal for decentralisation. The Australian federal system is changing. Local governments are becoming larger (in terms of population), and their functional scope is widening. We need to think about the framework in which those shifts are happening.


Vedi Hadiz, The University of Melbourne
Democracy and Decentralisation in Comparative Perspective: Insights for Tunisia

Hadiz argues for a more critical understanding of how support for decentralisation happens, drawing on his research on Indonesia. He notes that when we talk about ‘decentralisation’ we assume we’re talking about the same thing. But we’re not. This is in part because the sources of support are very different. For example, international development agencies think of decentralised local governments as more responsive to the market. Their understanding of ‘decentralisation’ is heavily shaped by neoliberal ideas: the notion that decentralisation creates small, nimble, institutions that can better, more efficiently respond to the market. Civil society organisations support them because they think of them as more democratic and accountable. This is already an important disjuncture.

We often forget there’s another source of support: local elites. We therefore need to understand what the influence of local elites is. Do they have an interest in local accountability and transparency? Or in using the new authority to insulate themselves from civil society? The failure to recognise this third influence means that we often experience ‘unintended consequences’ of decentralisation.

Indonesia has made progress – despite issues, it is a democracy. But Tunisia might learn from some of the problems that Indonesia has experienced, including around decentralisation. Both places have seen demands coming from regions that have thought of themselves as marginalised by centralised authoritarian regimes captured by centralised elites.

In Indonesia, where politically-marginalised regions with considerable resources have made (reasonable) demands for more development, local elites saw decentralisation as an opportunity to move up the ladder in Indonesia. Indonesia has amply demonstrated that those who are best positioned to take advantage of decentralisation are those who already have power.

Two things that Tunisia has going for it: firstly, Indonesia’s authoritarian regime was much more effective in destroying civil society. In contrast, in Tunisia you had functioning trade unions, and Ennahda was able to exist. A stronger (though diverse and contested) civil society is an important resource. Secondly, Tunisia’s military was deliberately kept weak. So hopefully Tunisia will be able to sidestep some of the issue that Indonesia has faced.

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