The Role of Decentralization in Tunisia's Transition to Democracy
by Intissar Kherigi
Tunisia’s first democratic local elections, held on May 6, 2018, were a seismic political event in the Arab world for two main reasons. The first is the fact that they represented the country’s fourth free, fair and peaceful elections since the 2011 revolution that removed former dictator Ben Ali from power and sparked the Arab Spring. This is a significant achievement in a region where initial hopes elsewhere for freedom, dignity and development have largely faded away in the face of civil war, authoritarian retrenchment, and foreign interference.
The second reason for the importance of Tunisia’s recent elections, and the focus of this article, is that they marked the start of a process of decentralization, which could have large ramifications for both the country and the wider region. The principal aim of the decentralization process is to overhaul the old model of centralized rule by transferring power away from Tunis, the capital city, toward local and regional authorities. Under a new Local Authorities Code adopted earlier this year, democratically elected local governments will have expanded policymaking jurisdiction and resources. This is a rarity in the Arab world, where decentralization has long been taboo for many regimes, which fear any talk of local autonomy as a potential threat to their rule.
Indeed, Arab countries remain among the most centralized in the world when measured by public service delivery and the distribution of powers and resources among the different tiers of government. Between 1990 and 2006, local government expenditure in OECD countries averaged around 41 percent of central government spending (20 percent of GDP) and around 23 percent in Latin America. In the Arab world today, local government expenditure averages only about 5 percent of GDP. Calls for greater local autonomy featured prominently in many of the Arab Spring protests, from Tunisia and Libya to Yemen and Morocco.
Yet, the debate around decentralization in the region has largely been dominated by two main discourses, both of which frame decentralization as a direct threat to stability and the foundations of the state. The first discourse presents calls for local autonomy as the work of secessionist groups that seek to undermine social harmony, national unity and stability. The second discourse presents them as the work of foreign powers that (either directly or indirectly via minorities) seek, again, to undermine social harmony, national unity and stability. The recent Kurdish referendum on independence, as well as the standoff between the Catalan region and the Spanish Government, were widely seen to vindicate these fears, proof that any talk of empowering local or regional authorities is the start of a slippery slope that can only end in chaos and fragmentation.
Tunisia’s bold step to devolve power stems from demands during the revolution for greater social, economic, and political inclusion of the country’s impoverished interior regions, where protests originated. The uprising focused national attention on the deep regional inequalities and marginalization – the consequence of decades of highly concentrated rule centered in Tunis and a handful of other coastal regions. French political scientist Beatrice Hibou maps this history of “spatial polarization” in Tunisia by linking it to a political alliance between the rulers and coastal elites, resulting in asymmetrical budgetary policies that have dedicated 80% of public investment to coastal regions and only 20% to interior regions.
Since 2011, political consensus has emerged regarding the need to introduce profound, structural solutions to tackle these entrenched inequalities. This new consensus led to the decision to devote an entire chapter of the new post-revolution constitution—adopted in January 2014 - to decentralization. Chapter Seven, titled simply “Local Authority”, has been called the most “revolutionary” section of the constitution and codifies a radical departure from Tunisia’s tradition of centralized authority. Article 14 of the constitution commits the state to “promote decentralization and adopt it across the whole national territory, within the framework of the unity of the state.”
However, deep divisions remain on this issue. Indeed, the reference to the “unity of the state” (wihdat al-dawla in Arabic) was inserted into article 14 at the request of the Ministry of the Interior, which oversaw local and regional authorities with an iron fist until 2015, when jurisdiction was transferred to a new ministry. Tunisia’s state structures and traditions have historically been heavily influenced by the French Jacobin model of a strong national government. As such, it is not surprising that decentralization has provoked nervousness among the central bureaucracy, as well as Destouriens (those who support a centralized model of governance, many of whom grew up under a presidential system dominated by former President Habib Bourguiba) and national politicians, who fear that their authority will be diminished by the empowerment of local governments.
Tunisia’s experiment with decentralization is still in its very early stages. A ministerial committee charged with overseeing the reforms has stated that the process will take a staggering twenty-seven years to fully implement. If it succeeds in promoting local development and revitalizing local services, while avoiding the much-feared fragmentation of national unity and state authority, Tunisia’s decentralization process will have important implications for how citizens in the rest of the Arab world view local rule. To do this, significant work is needed to build the capacities of local authorities, which have long been deprived of financial, technical, and human resources. Furthermore, a big push is needed to ensure that authorities are given the powers they need to exercise real autonomy, in the face of inevitable resistance from vested interests. Ultimately, it will be the responsibility of Tunisian citizens and civil society to maintain the pressure on decision makers to implement the new legal framework. With both great opportunities and challenges ahead, Tunisia’s decentralization drive is yet another reason to keep a close eye on the country’s ongoing democratic transition.
Courtesy of Magharebia / Flickr
Intissar Kherigi is a co-founder of the Jasmine Foundation, a ‘think and do tank’ in Tunisia specializing in citizen participation in decision-making and youth empowerment, and the application of social science research to create innovative social solutions. She has worked as a researcher at the House of Lords in London, the UN Security Council in New York, and the European parliament in Brussels, and is currently a PhD student in Comparative Political Sociology at Sciences Po in Paris. Her academic research focuses on decentralisation, regional inequality and local governance reforms in post-revolution Tunisia.