On March 24, 2016, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), in collaboration with the Tunisian Court of Accounts and the Parliamentary Commission Responsible for Electoral Legislation, organized a workshop on the provisions of the draft amendments to the electoral code pertaining to campaign finance and its control. The workshop was supported by funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative.
The Tunisian government has begun drafting the legal framework for the establishment of municipal councils, the establishment of which are a key piece of the decentralization process envisioned in the 2014 constitution. While elections are tentatively scheduled to take place by the end of 2016, the existing electoral code must first be amended to include provisions pertaining to their conduct. In January 2016, the government transmitted draft amendments of the electoral code to the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) for its review and ultimate adoption. These amendments include sections concerning the municipal and regional elections, and included a proposal to alter public funding mechanisms. Campaign finance has been a controversial electoral issue in Tunisia since 2011.
The primary objective of the workshop was to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the draft amendments to the electoral code with regards to campaign finance, and to propose concrete improvements to the parliamentary commission before the amendments are submitted to the ARP plenary session for adoption. The workshop assembled members of the Parliamentary Commission Responsible for Electoral Legislation and senior judges from the Court of Accounts. Of the 37 participants who participated, notable attendees included Abdelattif Karrat, the First President of the Court of Accounts, and Kalthoum Badreddine, President of the Parliamentary Commission Responsible for Electoral Legislation.
The debate revolved around two key issues: the introduction of a reimbursement system for electoral expenditures, rather than the previous method of disbursing public funds prior to elections, and campaign finance oversight mechanisms for the municipal elections. Participants discussed whether the reimbursement system of electoral expenditures is the most appropriate funding mechanism for Tunisia at this stage in the democratic transition, and if this system would prevent underfunded, but credible, candidate lists from participating in the municipal and regional elections. Some participants expressed fear that this system could curtail political pluralism, while others argued that it would prevent frivolous candidatures and rationalize public spending. Throughout the discussion, IFES offered recommendations for improving the current legal provisions and ensuring that the reimbursement system, if chosen, can function properly.
Tensions crystallized around oversight mechanisms, and which body would be responsible for controlling campaign finance during the upcoming municipal elections. If it is a shared responsibility between the Court of Accounts and the High Independent Authority on Elections (ISIE), as it was the case in 2014, there will still be tough questions regarding division of responsibilities. The burden is no small one given that the ISIE predicts over 7,000 candidate lists could compete in the next elections. ARP Deputies confirmed that no final decision has been made regarding either the reimbursement system or the oversight mechanisms, and the debate will continue within parliament.
Since 2012, IFES has established a multi-stakeholder strategy aimed at supporting the ISIE, the Court of Accounts, and civil society organizations to ensure a credible and efficient control of campaign finance. It has also provided assistance to the ARP to help bring the legal framework in conformity with international standards and good practices. IFES will continue to work with various stakeholders to strengthen the control of campaign finance for the upcoming municipal elections.