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: Women and Democratic Transitions


This panel drew on both Tunisian and Indonesian perspectives, with Admira Dini Salim and Dina Afrianty talking about the Indonesian experience, and Najla Abbes, Ghazoua Ltaief, and Ines Ben Youssef speaking about Tunisia. (More about these speakers in the program.)

We began with a general overview of the situation from the speakers.
Admira Dini Salim: Indonesia has a lot to learn from Tunisia, rather than vice versa. We need to look at all stages of the cycle, where women are included or excluded.
Najla Abbes: two key issues. Firstly, a fear of regression, as Tunisia has made a lot of progress and men are starting to complain about their need to ‘regain power’. Secondly, there’s a need to show that women deserve political participation and can participate effectively.
Ghazoua Ltaief: youth and women were at the front lines of the revolution, and then the first and second elections produced a huge gap between them and politicians. So now we’re trying to increase participation and make young people (including young women’s) voices heard, and not just on issues regarding women or youth.
Ines Ben Youssef: Women living in regional areas were excluded from political and civil life previously, so there’s a need to address this.
Dina Afrianty: 1999 – approval in the Parliament for Indonesian women to get equal political rights. However, there has a been a push-back against women’s participation in political life and the workplace in recent years.
Question: what do you do with the gap left in managing the household when women take on other responsibilities? And what is men’s roles?
Najla Abbes:
our observations are that women deputies involved in election representative were frequently blamed/scolded for ‘neglecting’ household responsibilities. We also see that men in parliament have difficulties in balancing life and work.
Ghazoua Ltaief: there’s an organisation called Tunisian Women which has done some research on women who are deputies in the national constituent assembly, and how that affects their lives. Many of these women did not get strong support from their husbands.
Admira Dini Salim: many women in Indonesia take on work that allows them time to take care of their families. Many women didn’t see political parties as safe spaces to work, including because of late-night meetings.
Dina Afrianty: Indonesia is a very large country which stretches across many islands, which makes things harder. For example, Indonesian girls in rural areas have had difficulty accessing educating. Another issue is the lack of childcare. Conservatives claim that LGBT issues emerge because children aren’t being ‘properly’ cared for and educator.
Question: could you talk about alliances happening across classes, and between secular and religious feminists, happening in Indonesia and Tunisia?
Najla Abbes:
we have a charter of shared beliefs, and we recruit and support anyone who is willing to adhere to that charter. The first provision is that women and men are unconditionally equal and deserve equal participation as citizens.
Ghazoua Ltaief: there are no alliances, unfortunately, between ‘modern feminists’ and Islamists, or conservative feminists. I have personally participated in many roundtables, focus groups, etc that bring together women from different backgrounds. There’s always some way to find ground for common communication, but going deeper there are always divisions. I’m not a feminist, because I work more on youth issues. But what I’ve been noticing is that there’s a deep division.
Najla Abbes: when we talk about alliances, I think about women working together too. When we started working in the field, we noticed that there were claims that we were too new, we didn’t know what was going on, and we lacked legitimacy. It took older organisations some time to realise that we all work together on the same cause, but now we are working together. When the old constitution draft talked about gender ‘complementarity’, we protested on the streets and there were over 100 associations involved in that. We come together around these threats to our lives.


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.

Post-Arab Spring Tunisia: Decentralisation and Local Democracy

Building on the research Christalla Yakinthou and I recently publishing on Internet governance in Tunisia, I’ll be speaking at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation’s symposium, Post-Arab Spring Tunisia: Decentralisation and Local Democracy in July. There’s an amazing line-up of speakers, including many people who seem to be at the forefront of work in Tunisia, as well as researchers and practitioners from Indonesia, so I expect that I’ll learn a lot.

As well as finding out more about what’s happening in Tunisia and Indonesia today, I’m interested in how people are framing (and critically examining) notions around democratisation, particularly in the context of decentralisation. There are many interesting experiments happening around the world in different versions of more direct democratic processes (including many facilitated by the Internet), and there are interesting possibilities for cross-fertilisation here.