Majority resignations, referring to the resignations of 50% or more of council members from a local council in a single instance, have been a common feature of local governance in Tunisia since the first free and fair local elections in May 6th, 2018 . According to my own count, between the election date and May 2nd, 2021, a majority of council members resigned from their posts in 50 out of 350 municipalities (14%) across the country. Clause 205 of the 2018 Code of Local Collectives specifies that when a majority of council members resigns in a single instance, the municipal council dissolves itself and new elections are held within that municipality. A local council is also dissolved if the council loses at least 1/3 of its members, and there is no candidate available from the electoral lists to fill the vacant seats.
I collected the data on resignations from Tunisian archival search website Turess.com , and I examined the relationship between the frequency of resignations and municipality-level correlates, such as location, party of the mayor, seat distribution and population. My findings indicate that both institutional factors, such as the electoral process rewarding smaller parties, and structural factors, such as distance to the governorate capitals, can explain the frequency of resignations. Yet, there is no clear relationship between the municipal budget and the occurrence of resignations.
The dissolution of a municipal council can disrupt the process of participatory local governance, reduce citizen trust, prevent municipalities from implementing projects and obtaining funds, and strain the relations among local party branches. Furthermore, each by-election organization deriving from majority resignations costs between 20,000 and 50,000 Tunisian dinars (c. 7000 up to 20000 USD ) according to an estimate by the Independent High Authority for Elections .
The council members are elected to the local council based on a 3% threshold on proportional representation through the Hare quota system in which the number of votes is divided by the number of seats allocated within a council to determine a quota value . Each party advancing the quota obtains at least one seat; the remaining seats are allocated on the ratio of votes obtained by parties to the quota value. The Hare quota system tends to be generous towards smaller parties.
The selection process of mayors takes place among council members through a secret ballot. The Clause 49 specifies that an absolute majority (>50%) of council member seats seeks to be attained in the first round of voting. If not attained, the top two candidates with most votes advance to the second round, where a majority vote determines the winner. As a result of the differing selection procedures, in 290 out of 350 municipalities (83%), the mayors were elected to their posts even though their party did not hold a majority of seats within the council. Figure 1, displayed below on the basis of my own data count, presents the distribution of majority council member resignations at the level of governorate.
Figure 1: The Distribution of Majority Council Member Resignations
Figure 1 indicates that the majority resignations are the most common in the North, such as in Kairouan (26.3%), Kef (26.7%), Siliana and Tunis (25%). No majority resignation has occurred in the governorate of Tozeur, Zaghouan, Gabes, Kebili and Medenine. The relative absence of resignations in Southern regions, which were historically marginalized , may be considered as good news for the ability of Tunisian transition to connect with the less privileged population, at least at the local level. Furthermore, it suggests that the cause of resignations may derive from institutional, rather than structural factors. The second figure below describes the reasons leading to mass resignations of council members from local councils, based on the data that I collected from newspaper archives. Some of the resigning council members indicated multiple reasons in their resignation statements, or in their interviews with the media outlets:
Figure 2: The Reasons for Majority Resignations from Municipalities
"Among 39 out of the 50 mass resignations, council members indicated problems with the mayor of their municipalities, such as political conflict or the mayor’s unwillingness to engage with the council. In 16 instances, council members indicated reasons pertaining to the overall workings of the municipality, such as the absence of a cooperative environment or the inability of the municipality to meet the demands of the population. Other reasons included corruption (13), issues within the council (5), other (3), and issues with the municipality administration (2)."
As disagreements problems with mayors constitute the main factor behind the resignations, does mayor’s party earing a majority of seats within councils influence the propensity of resignations?
Figure 3: Majority Resignations by the Proportion of Seats Earned by Winning Parties
Figure 3 indicates that the frequency of resignations (red dots) declines
if the mayor’s party holds a majority of seats (above 50%). In particular,
six mass resignations occurred out of 60 cases (10%) when the mayor’s party
won a majority of the seats, whereas 44 resignations occurred among 290
cases when the mayor’s party did not win a majority of seats (15.2%).
Hence, earning a majority of seats has led to a decline in the likelihood
of resignations by about 50%. Figure 4 below provides the percentage values
of resignations by mayor’s party based on the 50% threshold level.
PS: I collected data on the proportion of seats held by mayor’s party from the ISIE’s official documents , whereas data on mayor’s party was kindly provided by Al-Bawsala organization.
Figure 4: The Distribution of Resignations by the Electoral Threshold and Party of Mayors
Figure 4 indicates that among 19 municipalities where the mayors were elected from Nidaa Tounes and where Nidaa held a majority of the seats, the mass resignation rate is 21%. Among 57 municipalities where Nidaa did not hold a majority yet the mayor was elected from a Nidaa list, the resignation rate is (19.2%).
Among mayors elected from leftist parties, such as the Democratic Current or the Popular Front, the resignation rate is 31.2%, with all parties below the 50% threshold. For the independent-led municipalities, the rate of resignation is 11.8% if the mayor’s list earned less than 50% of the seats (110 municipalities in total), and 8.3% if the mayor’s list earned more than 50% of the seats, with the only mass resignation taking place in Ksibet Thrayet among twelve municipalities.
Only one mayor resigned, in Sakiet Eddaier, among 28 Ennahda-led municipalities where Ennahda held a majority of the seats (3.6%). In contrast, 14 resignations occurred in 103 municipalities where the mayor got elected from Ennahda yet Ennahda did not hold a majority of the seats (13.6%).
These results suggest that the rate of mass resignations dropped in municipalities led by mayors elected from Ennahda and Independents when their party held a majority of the seats, but this was not the case for the Nidaa-led municipalities. One explanation is that Ennahda is known for tight party organizations at the local level while the Nidaa Tounes disintegrated, which likely led to the resignations of many of its council members from the party membership. Thus, party dynamics in Tunisia within the past two years can explain some of these findings.
Distance to the governorate capital and the population size of municipalities could also influence the frequency of resignations. More populous municipalities tend to receive more resources from the central government. For instance, the population size is one of the criteria for the allocation of non-allocated annual fund, musā’dāt ijmāliyya gayri mūẓaffa, from the central government. Furthermore, population size could influence both the frequency of citizen contact with the elected officials and the density of civic associations.
Distance to the governorate capital, where the undersecretariat of ministries and offices of governorate are located, can also influence the financial and political dynamics within municipalities. Figure 5 below presents the occurrence of resignations based on distance to the governorate capitals (in km) and the population of municipalities (logged). I measure distance through “Google Maps” , and obtain population data from Al-Bawsala’s Website.:
Figure 5: Majority Resignations by Distance (km) and Population (logged)
Figure 5 indicates that no majority resignations occurred among municipalities of the governorate capital (centre-ville) and only one resignation occurred among municipalities that are at least 75 km. away from it (Dehiba). The capital’s municipalities may have a denser civil society and more developed administrative structure, which can provide additional checks on governance to prevent resignations.
As for municipalities far from governorate capitals (75 km or more), the relative decline in the frequency of resignations can be explained by weaker party organizations and more limited rent extraction opportunities due to neglect from central authorities and barriers on municipality capabilities, which can strengthen the internal cooperation mechanisms. For the range between 0 and 75 km, as distance from the centre-ville or the capital of governorate grew, resignations became concentrated among less rather than more populous municipalities. A potential explanation is that since the capped minimum number of seats within councils is 12, the diversity of electoral lists in some of the less populous municipalities could open up new fractures among parties, which could be catalyzed through the relative limitations of accessing central government resources, leading to resignations. Yet this potential explanation requires more evidence for a through evaluation.
Finally, the municipal budget could constitute a substantive predictor for resignations, as resignations may occur to protest the inability of municipalities to execute needed projects. Resignations may also lead to the deterioration of municipality budget, as some forms of support from the central government, such as requesting financial support from the Ṣandūq al-qurūth (Loan Fund), requires a majority approval from the local councils. The below figure analyzes the relationship between the Budget per Capita of municipalities for the fiscal year of 2019, obtained through the Ministry of Local Affairs and Environment’s website , and majority resignations, divided by districts. The interest is also whether there might be an association between the budget per capita of municipalities and resignations due to corruption as specified by the resigning members.
Figure 6: Majority Resignations by the Budget per Capita of Municipalities (2019)
Figure 6 indicates that while the municipalities in the North-East and Centre-East regions have greater budget per capita than the municipalities in the other regions, the relationship between majority resignations and the budget per capita appears ambiguous. Mass resignations occurred in municipalities with high levels of budget per capita, such as Menzel-Chaker, La-Chebba, Korbous, Carthage and Dehiba. Yet they were also common in less prosperous municipalities, such as Jebininana and Belkhir, for similar reasons related to disagreements with mayors.
Furthermore, mass resignations occurring with claims of corruption were the most common in municipalities with mid and low levels of budget per capita, such as Feriana, Bardo and El-Batan, as opposed to the more prosperous municipalities with resignations. These findings, however, do not lead to the conclusion that the budget of municipalities have no role whatsoever in motivating resignations. Instead, alternative dynamics might operate among different municipalities, challenging the ability of identifying a causal relationship.
The findings in this analysis indicate that both institutional factors, such as the electoral rule, and structural factors, such as distance to the governorate capital, can explain the frequency of resignations from the municipal councils. Tunisia implemented a constitution by the democratically elected Constituent Assembly in 2014. Article 131 of the Tunisian constitution specifies that local governance in Tunisia is based on decentralization. Yet resignations from local councils create a power vacuum at the local level, which may be filled by the deconcentrated authority through the intervention of governors or local administrators, enduring hierarchical rather than participatory governance structures.
Solidifying the decentralization capacity may require making some compromises on representation for the sake of functionality. The prevailing parties may be awarded a greater share of seats through alternative electoral systems, such as D’Hondt, which rewards the top party through a favorable quotient formula, which can expand the support of mayors within councils. Despite a February 2019 deadline, parliament approved only 11 out of 38 decrees clarifying the clauses of the 2018 Code. As a result, many key arrangements of local governance remain ambiguous, which can increase the propensity for conflict and hierarchical governance structures within municipal bodies. During the Constitution writing phase, both public and the Constituent Assembly expressed strong support for strengthening local bodies, and it is possible that the elected officials can leave their ideological differences aside to ratify orders pertaining to the local communities. Above all, reducing the current state of political polarization can contribute to a more conducive local governance structure.
Despite the promulgation of National Institution to Fight Against Corruption (INLUCC) , corruption within the municipal bodies constitutes a widespread reason for mass resignations. As a mayor indicated to me in Monastir governorate, it is possible that some council members resign under the pretext of corruption to damage the mayor’s reputation. Council members may also resign to attract the attention of central government authorities or they may believe that national authorities are ineffective in preventing corruption. More research needs to be conducted in examining the relationship between central government institutions, such as INLUCC, and municipal bodies to determine whether the oversight mechanisms of central government and regional authorities are effective in preventing corruption.
Resignations seem to occur in municipalities not located at the governorate capital, and not too far out from it. One could argue that these municipalities neither have the institutional capacity and resources of the capital municipalities, nor cooperative relations of municipalities far from the capital to respond to the challenges of decentralization. Hence, a more targeted approach may be devised towards these municipalities, such as supporting civil society groups and strengthening the status of local administrators to prevent political conflicts from blocking the municipal workings.
The data used in this article can be accessed at https://syasun.shinyapps.io/shiny/