Building Tunisia’s Legal Framework for Regional and Municipal Elections
By Evan Thomas-Arnold, IFES Program Coordinator
Clear legal frameworks are essential for the protection of fundamental suffrage rights, the design and implementation of effective electoral systems, and the efficient and transparent management of elections. These frameworks, comprised of legal instruments ranging from international laws and obligations to local administrative rules, touch upon every facet of the electoral process, including design of the electoral system, delimitation of electoral districts, voter registration, candidate nominations and Election Day procedures. Ahead of Tunisia’s municipal and regional elections, which could be held as early as October 2016, lawmakers and members of the government are busy working to revise and expand the existing electoral law which governs parliamentary and presidential elections to cover municipal and regional elections as well. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) is playing an integral role in this process – as it did for the 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections – by providing support on electoral legislative reforms to enhance the effectiveness and credibility of democratic institutions and processes.
Since the 2011 uprising, Tunisia has held three sets of elections over two major rounds, first in 2011 for a National Constituent Assembly, then in 2014 for a new Parliament, the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP), and one month later for a new President. In 2011, the framework was based largely on the 1969 electoral code, and while the legislation provided a good basis for the conduct of credible elections, there was some degree of uncertainty regarding certain practicalities. For example, there was little said on the voter registration process, and the lack of clarity in the law resulted in confusion over if citizens actually needed to register or not, which lead to problems around citizens knowing the correct polling station, appearing on the right lists, etc. Notably, however, Tunisia had enshrined gender parity in its system by requiring party nominating lists to present equal numbers of male and female candidates, and that the genders would alternate on the list to ensure participation for those winning lists. Nevertheless, in most lists a male appeared at the top, and as many lists won only one seat, the final make-up of the ARP had only 68 women out of 217, or 31 percent.
For the 2014 elections, there was an entirely new legal framework including a new constitution, electoral law, and a law establishing a permanent electoral management body, the High Independent Election Authority (ISIE). The new legislation was largely based on the previous laws, but improved upon them by making the ISIE a permanent body, and fixing some of the discrepancies, for example around voter registration, which had led to confusion in the 2011 elections. Some controversies persisted, though, including the voting status of military and internal security forces, unclear definitions or overly restrictive regulations concerning the conduct and financing of electoral campaigns, and an accelerated schedule for the resolution of electoral disputes. For the 2011 and 2014 elections, IFES provided over 100 recommendations for the improvement of electoral legislation, 25 of which were ultimately incorporated into legislation, regulatory decisions, and amendments.
Following the 2014 election process, government officials set out to meet the constitution’s requirement that direct elections be held for local representatives. These elections are seen as essential for entrenching democracy at the local level, and it is hoped that local level decision making will improve the quality and equity of public services. In order to hold these elections, a number of steps must be taken including passing amendments to the current electoral law, decisions regarding the boundary delimitation for municipalities, the mission and makeup of these new municipal and regional assemblies, and codifying into law the rules that will govern local or regional elections. IFES is again playing an integral role in this process, focusing in particular on advising reform to two fundamental aspects: improving the election mechanisms for election dispute resolution (EDR), and the rules governing the financing of electoral campaigns and its efficient control.
On October 26, 2015, the government released a draft election law for municipal and regional elections, and in early November, announced its intention to revise and transform the current law into a single, unified electoral code governing all types of elections and referenda, rather than adopting a separate law for local elections. By combining the laws into a unified code, legislators avoid the potential for public confusion regarding the conduct of elections, as well as inconsistencies or contradictions between different electoral laws. Throughout the drafting process, IFES has played a positive role by sharing briefing and analytical papers, and analysis of the draft electoral code and its amendments. And on February 10, 2016, IFES presented recommendations and feedback on EDR and campaign finance before the parliamentary commission responsible for electoral legislation. IFES also works with the First Presidents of the Administrative Court, the Court of Accounts, the Chairwoman of the Parliamentary Committee on Elections, and the office of the Minister for Human Rights to support legal reforms ahead of the historic municipal and regional elections.