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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 May 2018

Tunisia holds first municipalelections since 2011 Arab uprising

Local elections are breaking new ground on several levels

A Tunisian woman holds up her right hand in a gesture of salute as she stands between army soldiers and next to a policeman (R) standing on guard outside a polling station in Ben Arous near the capital Tunis on May 6, 2018, during the first free municipal elections since the 2011 revolution. Fethi Belaid / AFP
A Tunisian woman holds up her right hand in a gesture of salute as she stands between army soldiers and next to a policeman (R) standing on guard outside a polling station in Ben Arous near the capital Tunis on May 6, 2018, during the first free municipal elections since the 2011 revolution. Fethi Belaid / AFP

Tunisia held its first free municipal elections Sunday as voters expressed frustration at the slow pace of change since the 2011 revolution in the cradle of the Arab uprising.

The election has been touted as another milestone on the road to democracy in the North African country, which has been praised for its transition from decades of dictatorship.

But Tunisia has struggled with persistent political, security and economic problems as well as corruption since the revolution, and observers expected a low turnout for Sunday's poll.

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At a polling station in the capital, 58-year-old Ridha Kouki acknowledged that voting is "a right and a duty" but said Tunisians "have little hope" of any change.

Chokri Halaoui, 45, said he wanted to send a "message to politicians to tell them 'we have voted now show us what you can do'."

Turnout, two hours after polling began, was at around 4.5 per cent, the election commission said.

Tunisians have already voted in parliamentary and presidential elections since the 2011 fall of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but municipal polls had been delayed four times due to logistic, administrative and political deadlocks.

President Beji Caid Essebsi has called for a "massive turnout".

"For the first time [since the revolution] the Tunisian people are called to participate in municipal elections, something that seems simple but it is very important," he said on Friday.

Casting his ballot on Sunday, Essebsi again urged Tunisians to vote, saying "democracy cannot be imposed but must be exercised".

Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist Ennahdha movement, also urged a large turnout by "young Tunisian voters", admitting however that politicians "don't hold all the keys to progress".

'Cart without wheels'

Tunisia is grappling with economic challenges including an inflation rate which stands at around eight percent and an unemployment rate of more than 15 per cent.

The country was hit by a wave of protest at the start of the year over a new austerity budget introduced by the government.

"These municipal elections won't change anything for us. We will always be on the same cart without wheels or a horse," 34-year-old housewife Hilma told AFP ahead of the vote.

More than 57,000 candidates, half of them women and young people, are running for office in Tunisia's 350 municipalities.

Around 60,000 police and military personnel have been mobilised for the polls, while Tunisia remains under a state of emergency, imposed in 2015 after a string of deadly jihadist attacks.

European parliament vice president Fabio Castaldo, head of an EU delegation monitoring the polls, said the election was "an important step for the country's stability".

Voting will run until 6:00 pm (1700 GMT) in more than 11,000 polling stations across the country.

But in Sidi Bouzid, cradle of the 2011 revolution, and the neighbouring region of Kasserine in central Tunisia, a hotbed of protests during the revolt, polling stations will open later and close earlier for "security reasons", organisers said.

In December 2010, street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and later died of his wounds in Sidi Bouzid, in a protest over unemployment and police harassment that sparked the Arab Spring.

The municipal elections, enshrined in the new constitution and one of the demands of the revolution, mark the first tangible step of decentralisation since the end of Ben Ali's rule.

Voters will elect municipal counsellors who in turn will elect mayors by mid-June.

Experts predict Tunisia's two political heavyweights – Ghannouchi's Ennahdha movement and the secular Nidaa Tounes party founded by Essebsi – will come out on top in nearly every district.

But there remains some hope that the polls will see a new generation elected into office.

The municipal polls will be followed by legislative and presidential votes in 2019.