Five years after Tunisia’s political revolution, NDI’s public opinion research -- conducted in February 2016 -- found that many citizens continue to find their aspirations unmet by the country’s transition. One year after electing a new president and legislature, the majority of respondents report that their confidence in parliament has decreased, but they still hope for more engagement and communication from their elected leaders.
“Even if the pace of this change is not regular -- sometimes we make two steps [forwards] and four backwards -- there are still elements of constant change,” said a 25-year-old man from the Tunisian capital of Tunis during a focus group. “There’s still hope of a better future; at least we now know that we’ll have elections in four years.”
Amid frustrations with politicians in Tunis, upcoming municipal and regional elections -- currently anticipated for March 2017 -- offer citizens a new opportunity to elect the local leaders whose decisions directly impact their communities. Tunisia is also preparing to launch a decentralization process that will delegate new prerogatives to heads of municipalities and to local and regional councils over the coming years.
“It has an impact. When the person in office is close to me, I can go and talk to him so he can decrease his corrupt behavior,” said a 34-year-old man in Tozeur, Tunisia, referring to plans to give local officials greater authority. “On the contrary, when he is far from me, I can’t do anything so I remain silent.”
The focus group research, conducted from February 20 to 27, targeted 142 participants from four cities across Tunisia: Greater Tunis, Nabeul, Sidi Bouzid and Tozeur. The research built on 14 previous rounds of public opinion research conducted by NDI in Tunisia since March 2011. Focus groups explored Tunisians’ awareness of and expectations for the upcoming decentralization process and elections, as well as their views on the performance of parliament and their preferences for engaging with elected leadership.
Citizens demonstrate limited awareness of the decentralization process and local elections. Despite disillusionment with politics and concerns about local-level corruption, many believe local elections are a crucial step towards electing leaders able to address local priorities, such as infrastructure and sanitation. As a 69-year-old man from Tozeur said, “[local] elections are more important for the citizen than the elections of the prime minister or president.” Respondents hope decentralization will deepen democracy and promote regional development and justice.
Key findings touched on a number of key issues:
Overall National Direction
The majority of Tunisians believe the country is going in the wrong direction, citing the struggling economy, rampant corruption, and terrorism and its impacts on tourism and investment. Many respondents nevertheless see freedom of expression and the electoral experience as positive developments, and some believe the security situation to be improving.
Most respondents report that their confidence in parliament has decreased since the legislative elections in 2014. “People’s trust in the parliament broke down just like what happened with the constituent assembly,” one respondent noted. Though some respondents suggest that MPs are succeeding in their legislating or oversight roles, very few believe they are effectively representing their constituents.
Despite their frustrations with their elected leaders, Tunisians do hope to be engaged and consulted by MPs and the parliament. Some are aware of the requirement that MPs devote one week each month to constituent outreach and hope MPs will live up to this obligation. Respondents offer a number of suggestions for MPs to engage them, including establishing constituency offices, holding local consultations and hiring staff.
Most respondents support the idea of decentralization, believing it is crucial to deepening democracy, ensuring better representation for citizens, and promoting regional development and justice. In their view, it will empower officials who are closer to the people and better able to solve their problems without waiting for permission from Tunis. As one man remarked, “Every region will have some independence in terms of budget, priorities, decision-making, etc… Services will be closer to citizens.”
Tunisians are divided on the effect that decentralization would have on corruption. Some believe that giving local officials greater decision-making authority would make it easier for citizens to hold them accountable. Many respondents, however, point to existing local-level corruption as reason for skepticism, suggesting that decentralization may serve to further empower officials who will make decisions based on their local ties.
While some respondents are familiar with the broad outlines of the forthcoming decentralization process, there is less awareness about upcoming local and regional elections. Some see local elections as more important than national ones, but others are disillusioned with politics and with past electoral experiences. Voter education efforts by the election commission and civil society, and outreach by political parties and candidates, would increase turnout, according to respondents.
Citizens hope to elect local officials who will improve roads, local infrastructure, sanitation and regulation of local markets after they take office. Respondents suggest a variety of means—including open meetings, neighborhood commissions, and social and traditional media— by which local councils can inform and engage them in decision-making. “The municipality should organize a local consultation,” a respondent suggested. “They should send people in the streets to take people’s opinions.”
The current draft electoral law requires Tunisians to update their physical address on their ID cards—a process that many respondents believe would serve as an obstacle to voter turnout.
There is strong support across all demographics for a measure to guarantee youth inclusion on electoral lists. As one woman remarked, “You sometimes find youth who have energy and ideas that would never occur to adults even after 100 years of experience. It would do no harm if they put a young member in the municipality.”
Unemployment and rising prices continue to be principal economic concerns for Tunisians. They see the temporary jobs created by the government—which provide low-wage, unstable employment—as an incomplete solution. Respondents worry about the increasing expense of providing for their families’ basic needs and securing affordable housing.
To address the country’s economic ills, respondents suggest that the government distribute unused lands, invest in projects, and promote entrepreneurship to create opportunities, especially for young people.
Five years after the revolution, respondents believe that youth priorities—centered on employment and economy issues—have not changed significantly, but that youth have become increasingly desperate in the interim.
Respondents believe that those in power have not effectively addressed youth priorities, and want the government to foster investment and provide loans to young people. They also hope to see more youth in political leadership roles.
Burglary is the primary security concern for most respondents. Views are mixed on the effectiveness of policemen, but are generally more positive than in recent rounds of focus group research.
Citizens in interior regions lament the difficulties of accessing affordable, quality health care. Many respondents also express a need for education reform and several express appreciation for recent reforms made by the Minister of Education.
NDI shares its findings with political parties, parliamentary groups and government ministries to inform the policy-making process and encourage increased responsiveness to citizens’ interests and needs.
This research was supported by funding from the U.S. State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative.
Published on June 23, 2016