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'A new actor': Tunisia's independents beat main parties in municipal elections

More than a third of the winning candidates in the country's first free municipal elections are under the age of 35
The Independent High Authority for Elections announced results in Tunis this week (AFP)

Independent candidates beat the two major political parties to gain nearly a third of the vote in Tunisia's first free municipal elections on Sunday, according to official results.

With 2,367 seats - 32.9 percent of the vote - independents topped the polls over Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes which won 28.6 percent and 22.1 percent respectively.

The municipal elections, which had been delayed four times due to logistical, administrative and political deadlocks, were touted as a crucial step towards a decentralisation of power in line with Tunisia's post-2011 revolution.

However, the poll was marked by voter frustration and low turnout with 64.4 percent of eligible voters abstaining from participation, according to the Independent Higher Authority for Elections.

Yet despite tepid enthusiasm among young voters, more than a third of those elected are under the age of 35. 

"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.

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.

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The outcome "will depend on Ennahdha's ability to negotiate and rally coalitions at the local level", Kharrat said.

The party 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 councillors, the 53-year-old pharmacist could become the capital's first 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 party, whose leaders are already at odds, has been divided over the alliance with Ennahdha 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.