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Decentralisation in Tunisia: Consolidating Democracy without Weakening the State
Decentralisation in Tunisia: Consolidating Democracy without Weakening the State
People attend a protest against the government's refusal to raise wages in Tunis, Tunisia 22 November 2018. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Decentralisation in Tunisia: Consolidating Democracy without Weakening the State

The decentralisation process is polarising Tunisia and risks fueling social and political tensions. In order to fulfill its promise – to reduce socio-regional inequalities and improve public services – all sides must compromise on a new understanding of decentralisation that includes strengthening state services nationwide.

Executive Summary

Tunisia’s decentralisation process is increasingly in disarray. Through this reform, mandated by the new constitution adopted in January 2014, the central state is to cede certain of its powers to actors and institutions at lower levels in the political, administrative and territorial hierarchy. But the process is focusing on the democratisation of local authorities and neglecting to strengthen the state at the local and regional levels, which has fuelled opposition. If it fails to deliver on its promise to reduce inequality, decentralisation, as it is currently being implemented, thus risks heightening socio-political tensions and spreading nostalgia for the authoritarian regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1987-2011). Already, living conditions are deteriorating and the political class is facing a crisis of confidence. It is essential that Tunisian political actors reach a new compromise on this reform. The international supporters of decentralisation should offer both technical and financial support, bolstering the state’s ability to implement public policies and improving the quality of its services.

The focus on democratisation of local power results from a misunderstanding dating back to the 2010-2011 uprising: politicians and observers alike interpreted the protesters’ demands as a “request for less central state intervention”, which reportedly was smothering the economic and political vitality of Tunisia’s regions. But while protesters rejected the authoritarian regime, they did not necessarily mean to weaken the state. Based on this faulty analysis, policymakers have put aside the consolidations of the state and its public services at the regional and local levels.

Thus, while political decentralisation is progressing – municipal councils were elected in March 2018 and democracy is sinking roots at the local level – it does not meet the uprising’s demands for a “state of justice”, that is, a state that respects the “dignity” of all citizens regardless of social status or regional origin, and promulgates policy for the common good.

Eight years after the fall of the Ben Ali regime, the economy has deteriorated. In many places, public and social services barely exist. Clientelist networks are flourishing as new players emerge. Local elected officials, in particular, are fighting over the remnants of the old regime’s clientelist machinery in order to secure resources to distribute in exchange for votes. The resources at these networks’ command are drying up, however, and the informal economy, which the authorities tolerate more than they did in the past, only partly makes up the difference in livelihoods. Social unrest is likely to rise.

The government has yet to determine new procedures for coordination and cooperation between policymakers at the regional and local levels. Experts have many questions, as well, about how the government will transfer power from the central and regional administration to local authorities (regional councils have yet to be elected). Finally, the funds available to municipalities remain insufficient and local officials’ training in governance tasks weak.

The failure to consolidate the state at the regional and local levels has triggered resistance from senior state officials. This is harming the work of municipalities and complicating the task of elected local officials: they are unable to reverse the negative socio-economic trends in the country.

In the uprising’s wake, citizens have legitimate expectations of improved public services. Decentralisation is raising these expectations further but failing to satisfy them. It is thus reinforcing public mistrust of the political class, including elected local officials. It is also quickening the anti-Islamist reflexes of senior state officials after the An-Nahda party prevailed in nearly one third of Tunisian municipalities in the May 2018 local elections. Finally, it fuels nostalgia for Ben Ali’s regime and could exacerbate social and political tensions.

In order to broaden consensus around decentralisation and give it more substance:

  • The parliament, president and cabinet should organise a series of consultations bringing together local elected officials, civil society organisations, senior officials and political and trade union representatives to discuss concrete measures for further decentralisation. These discussions should focus on drafting coordination and cooperation procedures between officials at the regional and local levels, as well as on clarifying legal, technical and financial aspects of future transfer of powers to local authorities. Governors, who will necessarily be deprived of some power and resources, should not lose too much. Decentralisation should give them greater hierarchical and decision-making power over regional services (de-concentration and delegation of powers) to better coordinate and improve public services at the regional level.
  • The government should put in place a regional and local development strategy in partnership with both public and private regional and local actors, and work to improve public services. To this end, it should enhance the skills of regional officials through continuous training and offer competent officials incentives, such as bonuses, for working in poor or neglected areas.
  • The government should strengthen financial courts and administrative tribunals throughout the country, place local authorities in charge of both municipal police and accountants responsible for collecting local taxes and royalties, and create the High Authority of Local Finances as soon as possible.
  • Given the national government’s fiscal austerity policy, international supporters of decentralisation should increase their financial support to the future Fund for Decentralisation, Equalisation and Solidarity between Local Authorities, and provide technical support to the High Authority of Local Finances. The World Bank, the UN Development Program, the Council of Europe, the EU mission in Tunisia, the French Development Agency, the German Corporation for International Cooperation and the International Development Centre for Innovative Local Governance can be of particular help.

Tunis/Brussels, 26 March 2019