I presented in the second session, so my notes are more limited here. Still, two very interesting papers from Belhassen Turki and Therese Pearce Laanela.
Belhassen Turki, Tunisian Local Governance Project
Local Democracy and Territorial Reform in Tunisia
Turki’s presentation drew on long experience in developing local government to talk about the Tunisian Local Governance Project, supported by international and Tunisian institutions. He began by discussing Tunisian history with decentralisation and the significant growth in municipalities since 1956, which nevertheless were kept weak before 2011: local government had only 4% of GDP in funding, and had limited autonomy.
The new Tunisian constitution makes specific provision, in Article 131, for local authorities’ role in governance. The Tunisian Local Governance Project aims to enhance the dialogue on decentralisation, provide supporting research, strengthen Tunisian local government and share lessons with other MENA countries.
Therese Pearce Laanela, Australian National University
Trusting Tunisian Elections
While there is a substantial body of knowledge about how to organise elections, there’s a need to ensure that people trust the results. Laanela’s research explores an important issue: what makes people trust public institutions? In order to answer this, it’s necessary to look beyond election day and understand the processes that underpin elections.
A huge amount of work has gone into all elections in Tunisia since 2010, and the country has some important strengths in this area:
- A strong public service tradition (albeit with some upstream problems with decision-making),
- A strong pool of talent due to the wide availability of education,
- State of the art electoral practice (including the vertical and horizontal parity required of party lists, and the monitoring of political financing),
- International support structures,
- Strong social cohesion (in that most Tunisians are very proud of their country’s achievements, and want it to succeed), and
- Elite buy-in.
Elections underpin the societal commitment to manage political change in a stable and inclusive way. A lack of electoral trust is therefore costly and potentially risk, but at the same time trust is elusive and messy, and elections take place during a time of agitation. Trust requires not only ongoing delivery of particular services, but also a sense of common purpose, which requires taking the sense of agitation seriously. There’s a need to understand, and be seen to understand, candidates’ and voters’ anxieties about the process.
In Tunisia, electoral authorities are competent and respectful, but they’re being let down by a failure of politicians to pass the necessary legislation in a timely way. This puts staff at the coalface of running elections at risk of being underprepared. Laanela argues that those involved in Tunisian civil society therefore need to be putting pressure on legislators right now to stay on task and pass vital legislation.