Independent candidates emerge as stars of Tunisian municipal elections

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Independent candidates taking part in the Tunisian municipal elections on Sunday have emerged as the true stars of the poll, according to early results announced on Monday.

Together, the hundreds of candidates amassed 28 percent of the overall vote, an indicator of the Tunisian voting public preferring independent contenders over parties in the country’s first free municipal elections since the 2011 uprising.

But the Islamist Ennahda party claimed an official victory with 27.5 percent of the vote, with top Ennahda official Lotfi Zitoun told Reuters the party was more than 5 percent ahead of its secularist rival, Nidaa Tounes, citing vote counts observed by the party.

As of Monday morning, the independent candidates amassed 502,923 votes, with Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes winning 493,942 and 404,134 votes respectively.

Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes are coalition partners in the national government, but experts see the rise of independent candidates as a signal of declining polarization in Tunisian society between the Islamist and secular parties.

The polls will see officials elected in 350 municipalities for the first time since a 2011 uprising ended decades of authoritarian rule.

Ennahda will “continue to keep the consensus with our partners”, spokesman Imed Khemiri said in a statement at party headquarters in Tunis, where supporters gathered outside and sang revolutionary songs from 2011.

“It’s important that the two main parties won and it’s important for the political balance in the country.”

Borhan Bsais, a Nidaa Tounes official, said his party probably trailed Ennahda by 3 to 5 percent.

Tunisia has been hailed as the only democratic success of the Arab Spring, because it toppled long-serving autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali without triggering major violence.

But enthusiasm for democratic change has long given way to anger over stubbornly low living standards, which have driven some Tunisians to make the dangerous sea crossing to Europe in search of work or have prompted a few to turn to militant Islam.

“I intended to boycott, but I changed my mind at the last moment,” Mohamed Ali Abadi, told Reuters after leaving a polling station. “We are facing a lot of economic problems but will continue our way in a real democracy”.

Voter turnout was 33.7 percent, according to the election commission.

The commission decided to postpone elections in eight centers in Mdhila in the south because of a mistake in the election papers. Clashes were reported in several areas.

Political parties have spoken about violations in several towns, including trying to influence voters and distribute money.

Adel Brinsi, a member of the Independent Electoral Commission, said some abuses occurred at the polling stations but they were not significant and did not affect the election results or their normal functioning.

Turnout was low in three polling stations visited by Reuters in the capital, Tunis, in the morning. Mostly elderly people were voting, while young people were sitting in cafes nearby.

“I want a job,” said a young man who gave his name as Ramzi. “No one cared for us in the past years and we suffer from unemployment.”

The main challenge will be to match voters’ expectations with local budgets in a country where the central government makes the main decisions about how and where money gets spent.

A new law envisages some decision-making being gradually devolved to the local level, although it remains unclear how that will work in practice.

Western donors want to provide funds for councils to start projects from day one.

That comes on top of billions of dollars in loans from the International Monetary Fund and various countries to help plug a budget deficit caused by political turmoil and one of the world’s highest public sector bills.

(With Reuters)