Post-Arab Spring Tunisia: women’s political participation and political decentralisation

Admira Dini Salim, International Foundation for Electoral Systems
Increasing Women’s Political Participation in Indonesia
Indonesia’s performance on gender equality is lagging. The UNDP Gender Equality Index ranks it 108 out of 187 countries. Civil society continues to fight for change. A lower proportion of women  than men are registered to vote, but turnout is better among women. Despite this, only 23% of voters voted for female candidates in the 2014 elections. Unfortunately, a survey in 2013 showed that if male and female candidates were equally qualified, voters would prefer a male candidate (including female voters). In 2014, 17% of seats in the national parliament were held by women.

cniwbwsumaakyveThe quota system is evolving – at first it was at 30% of candidates that needed to be women (but with no sanctions), after the 2009 election, the election commission added a clause saying that the electoral authorities would announce all parties that didn’t meet the quota. In 2014, working through civil society, the election commission imposed a 1 in 3 quota around gender.

For regional head elections (264 regions) in 2014, female candidates were only 7.5% of candidates. Only 8.5% of female candidates won positions as regional heads or vice.

IFES is working on supporting women to work as election commissioners and in other official positions. The law mandates that 30% of election administrators should be women.

The challenges for women’s political participation are both regulatory and non-regulatory. Regulatory challenges include the lack of enforcement of the quota system, political parties lack of promotion of women as candidates or leaders, discriminatory legislation at the regional level in some areas (for example, in Aceh and other places, there are local regulations that impose curfews on women being out of the house in the evenings, which limits their ability to go to political meetings), and the high costs of elections limit women’s participation. Non-regulatory barriers include social and cultural roles and other factors.

IFES has several programs to improve gender representation, including the Women’s Electoral Leadership Program, She Leads, and the Training of Female Legislators program. These tie in with movements led by local civil society organisations. IFES is thinking about the full election cycles: it’s not just about election day, but about all the stages at which women might be better included.

There are a number of challenges to regulations that could improve women’s participation, including making the 30% quota obligatory and including a strong sanction; offering a subsidy as an incentive for parties to comply with gender quotas; maintaining the open list proportional system to minimize the control by a small political elite in allocating seats in parliament; requiring that female candidates make up 30% of candidates in party lists; and placing women candidates at the top of candidate lists for national, provincial, and regency elections. Civil society is playing an important role in developing and supporting legislation that supports women’s participation in the political system.

Najla Abbes, League of Tunisian Women Voters
Women’s Participation in Political and Public Life: Gains and Challenges

Abbes began by noting that both women and men took to the streets during the revolution. Since 2011, women have been taking part in all levels of elections. However, speaking from her own experience, she notes that the visibility of efforts for women’s rights wasn’t always high, and she began by worrying that women weren’t ready for political participation. But Abbes notes that both men and women were excluded from participation in the democratic process, so everyone will be learning together.

The ‘zipper system’, outlined in Article 16 of the Constitution, requires alternation between men and women in the lists. But at first, only 7% of the top of lists were women. Only one party implemented horizontal and vertical parity, and it was seen as ‘too modern’.

Parity is a great gain, but there’s been an ebb and flow. Abbes notes that Tunisian women get told, “Tunisia is far ahead of the rest of the Arab world, so you should be happy as things are”. But that’s not enough: the requirement of parity is in the Constitution, and it’s important to keep working towards it. Civil society needs to keep working to preserve and extend women’s rights. Part of this work has been pushing for both horizontal and vertical parity to be imposed, and for parties to face sanctions if their lists don’t support parity.

The League of Tunisian Women Voters has been working to support women candidates, including preparing them to participate effectively when elected. They’re also concerned that when women are elected, they’re representing their parties, rather than a ‘women’s agenda’.


Dina Afrianty, Australian Catholic University
Indonesia’s Democracy: Political Decentralisation and Local Women’s Movement
Afrianty’s research suggests that decentralisation has been seen by religious conservatives in Indonesia as an opportunity to return to an Islamic vision of politics. Initial attempts by Islamic political parties to gain power were not successful. After this, many conservative Muslims started to push for conservative interpretations of Islamic law to be incorporated at the local level.

Aceh is currently the only region that is governed by shariah law, with a number of laws brought in at the local level in 2009. These laws have been seen by much of civil society as discriminatory. After the tsunami, when international humanitarian organisations began working in Aceh, more space opened for civil society to voice their opposition. Many organisations from Aceh have pointed to a long history of women’s involvement in leadership in Aceh, including centuries ago when it was a Muslim kingdom, and are engaging in doctrinal debate to offer alternative visions of Islamic law.

Getting more women into power doesn’t necessarily lead to progress. There are several notable examples in Indonesia of women coming into power on platforms that are quite regressive.

Post-Arab Spring Tunisia: local government in Indonesia, a start-up democracy, and the youth

Greg Barton, Alfred Deakin Institute
Indonesian democratic transition: an examination of the vital elements
Barton argues that we can now call Tunisia a successful democratic transition, as elections have been  held with limited violence and instability. There are important parallels with Indonesia, which is democratic (although not without its problems), well-educated and literate, well-connected, globalised, and with a demographic youth bulge. Both countries also have a significant Muslim population, and Islamic movements have made important contributions to civil society.

There’s a tendency, particularly in the West, to overlook religious participation in civil society. In Indonesia, progressive Muslim movements played a key role not only in the resistance to colonialism and formation of alternative institutions, but also in developing opposition to Suharto. Progressive Islamic thought was supported in Reformasi throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Islam became a positive factor: progressive Islamic thought lays a foundation for democratic thinking and social activism.

Civil society, including religious movements, will continue to play a role in Indonesia’s democracy. One key area here is local elections: these are, in many ways, the most relevant to voters, as they are seen to have the greatest impact on their lives. However, challenges continue in this area. Among other issues, only 7% of candidates in the last Indonesian local elections were women.

Innes Ben Youssef, Free Patriots
Tunisian Revolution: a story of start-up democracy
Tunisia is seen as the only success story of the Arab Spring, and there have been many advances, including the successful implementation of a technocratic government to guide the process of forming the constitution.

To ensure democratic transition, it is important to shine a light on decentralisation and local democracy, and focus on the significant role of civil society, especially women and the youth. In order to do that, we need to re-evaluate the role of the state, strengthen local governments, improve the capacities of municipalities, and improve citizen’s participation in local decision-making.

Ghazoua Ltaief, Sawty
Promoting the Inclusion of Youth in Democratic Transitions


Tunisia is a success, a glimmer of hope as it undergoes a continuous transition process, but it still faces challenges. The constitution has set a new path for Tunisia, and the shift to more decentralised government is key to that. There are still many challenges for youth involvement, and many youth feel disappointed in, and disconnected from, politicians.

Sawty is an important part of the democratic process, working in the regions as well a in Tunisia. One of their programs: “Raise Your Voice”, is aimed at increasing youth participation in local government. Through this program, Sawty is working with youth to articulate their problems, and connecting youth with politicians and other decision-makers to try to develop these solutions.

Sawty is also working with broader networks, including the netmed youth network. This project is helping countries in the Mediterranean to develop youth policies in consultation with the youth. Bus Citoyen, another Sawty program, is a bus that travels around regions in Tunisia working on voter education, including why to, and how to, vote.

Ltaief says that despite the challenges, they are still optimistic (because they need to be).

Post-Arab Spring Tunisia, session 2: local government,

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.

cndumdlvuaapimaBelhassen 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.

Post-Arab Spring Tunisia, session 3: decentralisation and intercultural practice

Saber Houchati, National Federation of Tunisian Cities
Constitutional Transition, Decentralisation and Local Electoral Processes in Tunisia
This presentation went into more detail about the process of decentralisation currently under way in Tunisia. The 7th chapter of the constitution sets out three levels of elected bodies: municipalities, regions, and districts. Subsidiarity is, Houchati noted again, a key principle of decentralisation. He framed this as based on service delivery: the authority that is near the citizen is responsible for managing services.

As work continues in Tunisia, there are efforts to build administrative and financial autonomy at the local government level. Part of this is the need for local governments still need to consider partnerships and foreign relations (which were previously controlled by a higher level of government). Challenges include low public support and a lack of instruments for participatory democracy, and limited resources. In Tunisia, local governments get only 4% of GDP in funding (compared to Morocco, 11% and Turkey, 20%). Another issue is that many people don’t want to work in the municipalities – they want to work in ministries and other areas.

There were a number of short term measures taken after the revolution to work on developing democracy, including the nomination of special delegations (which means that most services have continue to work throughout the period after 2011), and capacity building of local managers. Shifting to the medium term, there’s been the incorporation of participatory budgets, attention to gender issues, and other attempts to deal with inequality.

Now, there’s a need to work on decentralisation, broad participation, and promoting transparency and communication about the process of decentralisation. This needs to bring together those in government, international experts, and civil society. Civil society has played an important role in managing the dialogue around decentralisation.

Lynda Ford, iGen Foundation
The Role of Local Government in Leading Social, Technological and Entrepreneurial Innovation

Ford notes that Australia has a long multicultural history. Before European settlement, there were more than 160 language groups, and today a high proportion of people living here have at least one parent born oversees. Now, shifting towards an intercultural perspective is useful (in tandem with multiculturalism).

iGen’s Getting Down to Business is a statewide program for young entrepreneurs bringing together those working across a range of areas and backgrounds. Many young people in the program already employ others, including contracting others in supply chain management, the sharing economy, and employing people direct. iGen tries to ensure gender and cultural diversity within this group through specific recruitment strategies.

The program uses a hybrid model of coaching, webinars, mentoring, and networking. Organisers also consider broader ecosystem development (eg. coworking spaces, access to investment).

iGen also run a variety of other programs supporting intercultural connections. They ran the ‘techfugees’ hackathon in Melbourne. Since then, they’ve been working on an ideas incubator to develop projects from the hackathon and seek funding. They’ve also been developing an online magazine to help with practical program and service design and implementation around intercultural practice, and a desktop intercultural training to help people working in local government. An important part of this work involves connecting people in people in local government to international networks.

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.