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Local elections in Tunisia: an opportunity to give interior regions a fair chance?

Antonius Verheijen's picture
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This article was originally published by Huffington Post Maghreb.

Watching party activists pass out election leaflets in Bizerte on Labor Day gave me the first tangible feel that local elections were coming, in an otherwise quite understated campaign. While some may feel disappointed about the relatively low-key process, and even more so with voter turnout, sometimes ‘understated’ is also a good thing: the sense that local elections in Tunisia, the first one since 2011, can be a ‘normal’ political occurrence in a context where democracy is evolving.

Even if these elections were an achievement by themselves, the fact that Tunisia now has elected local councils is also an important opportunity to rethink the centralized economic development model. It is critical that the local councils be given a chance to fulfill their mandates, and deliver the improved services and new investments that their citizens have been waiting for.
This would present an important to counterargument to economists who continue to see decentralization as a ‘fiscal risk’, even more so now in a context where public expenditures have already risen to very high levels. Staffing and managing local authorities is, in their reasoning, an added cost that the country can ill afford. This same argument holds that local competences are still few, and therefore running elected local governments will be ‘expensive’.

The above reasoning ignores the question on the performance of decades of extreme centralization, and the cost this has imposed on inland regions, which continue to lag behind coastal areas, even if they have significant (unrealized) development potential. Democratization has not, so far, changed those dynamics, generating (understandable) grievances and tensions in inland regions.

As an example, when talking to local governments during a visit to several locations a few months back, local leaders emphasized how little influence they have on investment decisions. These decisions are predominantly made by State Owned Enterprises, without much consultation with local authorities. Even more so, the SOEs in question often ask local authorities to transfer municipal assets (land in particular) to them as a condition for the investments. Decisions about where investments are made are then often perceived, by local citizens, as arbitrary, and little or no effort is made to explain or justify them. In addition, , there is a perception (and if one considers the state of local infrastructure in inland regions, it is more than a perception) of bias against inland regions in these investments.

What is it then that decentralization can do in this regard and how will this relate to other strands of reform? The general trend we have seen around the world is one where potential economic gains built on greater accountability and empowerment outweigh the cost of decentralization. We saw this in Indonesia, European transition countries like Poland, advanced Indian states (e.g. Karnataka), where rolling back centralization brought significant economic development gains.

These and other cases showed that, once elected local leaders are put in place, they have and will take seriously their responsibility to the local population. They will work to create economic development opportunities for their municipality of region, and they will do so in order to be reelected. This will also requires them to invest in improving services to build trust with their citizens, , as they go out to attract investors, and in the process create a much more dynamic and proactive approach to economic development.

Lessons drawn from countries where decentralization and enhanced local accountability helped trigger greater growth and development have important lessons. A gradual rebalancing of expenditure and revenue assignments, including more local control over key social services, should follow efforts to reassign staff from central to local level. This is a process that is always complicated (and often comes with costs for incentivization). Current ideas to place recent university graduates in local governments as part of state employment schemes could help in bridging the period between now (where local government have little staff to speak of) and the time when redeployment programs would start having an impact. A solid combination of bridging and long-term measures to build local capacity is critical to make decentralization succeed. The World Bank will support these efforts by adding US$ 130 million in additional resources to the ongoing (successful) US$ 300 million Program in support of Local Governance and Urban Development. The additional support will focus on supporting new local governments created in 2018 and on financing the above ‘bridging’ arrangements to build local capacity.

Hence, the May 6 local elections for me were a first but critical step in an important process of local economic empowerment. With citizens skeptical about the process (as shown in low turnout numbers), the onus will be on those that were elected to win them over. There is no better way of doing this than improving services, bringing investments and creating employment. If successful, this will then have a positive impact on the economic fortunes of inland regions, as well as enhance the legitimacy and credibility of Tunisia’s new elected authorities.   
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