TUNIS, Tunisia (AFP) — The Islamist movement Ennahdha has beaten rivals in Tunisia’s first free municipal elections but failed to win outright majorities in a poll marked by voter frustration and a low turnout.
The election on Sunday was 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 its 2011 revolution that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings.
Ennahdha came first in several of the country’s main cities including Tunis, but fell short of winning outright majorities.
Nationwide, independent lists won 2,367 seats, just shy of a third of the total.
Ennahdha took 2,135 seats and the Nidaa Tounes party of President Beji Caid Essebsi clinched 1,595.
That put Ennahdha ahead in 155 of the country’s 350 municipalities, according to estimates by multiple NGOs.
“These results show a real emergence of independent lists as a new actor that will inevitably reshuffle the cards” politically, said analyst Selim Kharrat.
But he added that an alliance between Ennahdha and Nidaa Tounes — partners in a coalition government nationally since 2014 — could mean independents will remain in opposition.
The poll was marked by low turnout, with 64 percent of voters abstaining, the electoral commission said Wednesday.
Tunisia’s 7,212 municipal councillors now have until July to elect their mayors.
The two top parties are expected to hold talks aimed at upholding their coalition.
The outcome “will depend on Ennahdha’s ability to negotiate and rally coalitions at the local level,” Kharrat said.
The Islamists won 21 out of 60 seats in the capital, while Nidaa Tounes took 17.
If Ennahdha’s candidate Souad Abderrahim wins the backing of a majority of municipal councilors, the 53-year-old pharmacist could become the capital’s first ever female mayor, a post previously appointed by the president.
But Nidaa Tounes official Wissam Saidi said its candidate Kamel Idir, also a pharmacist and former president of a leading football club, was better placed to form a coalition as the capital’s mayor.
The secular party, whose leaders are already at odds, has been divided over the alliance with the Islamists since it won legislative and presidential elections in 2014.
Kharrat expects a rift between the two main parties to widen in the run-up to next year’s polls.
Under reforms passed since the revolution, women accounted for 47 percent of those elected in the local polls.
Despite a low turnout among young voters, more than a third of those who won seats are under the age of 35.
The municipal elections, which had been delayed four times due to logistical, administrative, and political deadlocks, were touted as a crucial step towards a decentralization of power in line with Tunisia’s post-2011 revolution.