The Arab Reform Initiative and the Collège Méditerranéen pour la Recherche Scientifique organized a two-day conference in Tunis on 30 and 31 May 2016 to present European experiences of municipal development during periods of democratic consolidation, and to contribute to the debate on implementing local government in Tunisia.
The conference discussions evolved around four main themes:
- local government as one of the pillars of democracy;
- the development of local government as a step towards democratic consolidation in periods of post-dictatorial transition;
- decentralization as a catalyst for development; and
- the controversy surrounding participatory democracy and the role of civil society.
With a growing trend towards more civil society participation in the political process, local government in Tunisia is being recognized as an essential new step in the consolidation of democracy. Nonetheless, Tunisia continues to resist the decentralization process, generating deep frustration in less developed regions of the country where it is widely believed that democracy has not yet addressed problems of inequality and social injustice.
The difficult security situation and divisions within Nidaa Tounes, the party of the President and a leading party in the government coalition, were cited as causes for delays in approving a draft local government law, and for the numerous postponements of local elections.
Conference participants put forward recommendations for assisting Tunisia at this critical junction in its democratic transition and for the role that the European Union must play. The main conclusions are:
- The consolidation of democracy in Tunisia must be a strategic priority for the European Union and its member states. They must recognize the unique character of the Tunisian democratization process, and negotiate a special status with the country that takes into account Tunisia’s economic and social needs.
- There is a huge expectations deficit in Tunisia because of a lack of response to the social objectives of the revolution. Decentralization will be critical for addressing development disparities that can be detrimental to the democratic consolidation process;
- The development of participatory democracy can be an important Tunisian contribution to the global debate on the future of democracy, along with measures designed to ensure gender parity and youth participation in municipal governing bodies;
- Given the growing importance of civil society in international relations, networking activities between European states and Tunisia should be promoted, particularly at a bilateral level. Engaging with Tunisia primarily via the plethora of relatively ineffective Euro-Mediterranean regional projects makes little sense.
The conference was held with the support of the European Union, the Portuguese Government and the National Culture Centre of Portugal.