Voter registration for municipal elections closed on 10 August 2017, and Tunisia’s Independent Elections Authority, the ISIE, announced its decision not to extend the process, in spite of relatively low turnout. On August 11, the ISIE released the results of the two-month registration period: 535,784 new voters and 92,201 updated registrations for a total of 5,373,845 voters who will participate in local elections on December 17.
Outcomes of the registration process which took place between 19 June – 10 August 2017 revealed a low turnout relative to the country’s more than 7 million eligible voters. Registration for this year’s local elections revealed a slight increase of 1.25% from registration for the legislative and presidential elections in 2014. The ISIE’s statistics indicate that youth ages 18-21 are abstaining from the electoral process, reflecting a rupture with the young generation in spite of the stakes that this category, a significant percentage of the total population, represent for political actors.
Low youth turnout at registration centers
175,826 youth between the ages of 18-21 are to participate in the upcoming municipal elections, making up about 3.27% of the total voting body. The low rate of participation for this cohort new to the voting process reflects the social and political context that has shaped young people’s awareness about public affairs. This awareness was crystallized following the 2014 legislative election characterized by contradictions between the promises presented in political speeches and the political practices encumbered by party fractures (the Nida Tounes crisis) and the power struggle between the election’s winning parties. Moreover, matters concerning youth did not figure among public policy discussions; had decision-makers been more attentive to this cohort, they might have inspired a positive image of the political establishment in the eyes of new voters.
The citizenry’s general lack of confidence in the ability of ballots to change governance trends is proven by the minimal evolution, 1.25% since 2014, of voter registration. This lack of confidence was exacerbated by the reshuffling of government that took place outside of the electoral process (the government of Youssef Chahed which replaced that of Habib Essid was formed in the context of political crisis), and also by the conflict of interests that has plagued ruling parties.
Increase in women’s participation
Low youth turnout for voter registration might have given political actors reason to bet accordingly on women’s participation in the electoral process. On the contrary, the slight increase in total voter registration is primarily owing to the increase in women’s participation, from 46,10% in 2014 to 51,43% in 2017.
This positive evolution can also be examined in terms of demographic indicators: women make up 50.2% of the total population compared to men, 49.8%, according to the 2014 census. Also, women’s increased participation in voter registration coincides with trends showing women’s engagement in social life which is no less than that of their male counterparts. The significant vulnerability of women in social and economic crises has encouraged many to think about changing policies through the polls, since participation is considered an opportunity to address regional marginalization, especially women living in the interior regions.
Youth in the regions show greater participation than youth in urban centers
The ISIE’s statistics indicate that youth participation differs between those (ages 18-21) living in major urban centers (Tunis, Sfax, Sousse) and those living in interior regions. As the map shows, youth turnout in the governorates of Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid was higher than in Tunis and Sousse. A determinant factor in youth turnout in the interior regions might be the recent addition of municipalities in these governorates which enabled new voters to participate in choosing local authorities. Another way to understand the relatively high turnout in these regions—where residents continue to organize social movements—might be to look at how youth are influencing central politics by changing the form of local authority. Whereas this trend may not yet be significant given the overall low registration among young people, it does have implications for youth engagement in electoral processes in the future. In the meantime, the outcomes of local elections remain at the mercy of centralized decision-making processes which are overwhelmingly based on the social and economic interests of those representing municipalities in Tunisia’s major urban hubs.