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Tunisia election: First female mayor tipped for Tunis

Unofficial exit polls suggest Ennahda has received 27.5 percent of votes, five points ahead of the secular Nidaa Tounes party
Souad Abderrahim, Ennahda's candidate in Tunis, is well placed to become the city's first female mayor (AFP)

Tunisia’s Ennahda party proclaimed victory in historic municipal elections on Monday after exit polls suggested they had won the most votes in a result that, if confirmed, could also pave the way for the first female mayor of Tunis.

Unofficial exit polls for the nation’s first free municipal elections suggested the party had taken 27.5 percent of votes with the secular Nidaa Tounes party receiving 22.5 percent.

Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes, who are coalition partners in the national government, were expected to dominate the long-delayed polls.

Claims of victory

Ennahda was quick to claim victory after voting closed at 6pm on Sunday. Top Ennahda official Lotfi Zitoun said that the party was more than five percent ahead of Nidaa Tounes, citing vote counts observed by the party.

"This result is a reward for the new tolerant and democratic Ennahda... Ennahda which searched for consensus," Zitoun said.

Official elections results will be released by 9 May, Tunisia's Independent High Authority for Elections has said.

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The elections have been touted as a major milestone in Tunisia's transition to democracy after decades of authoritarian rule came to an end in 2011.

More than 57,000 candidates, half of them women and young people, ran for office in 350 municipalities, with more than 7,200 positions being contested.

In Tunis, Ennahdha’s Souad Abderrahim looked likely to be the first female mayor of the capital after independent civil society observers at counting centres said she had received 33.8 percent of the vote.

Abderrahim, a pharmacist and former MP who ran against 10 male candidates, said before the polls that she sought to be “a source of pride for Tunisian women".

Mayors are elected by municipal councils: as leader of her party’s list in Tunis, Abderrahim is in prime position to run the capital.

Underwhelming turnout

Tunisia has been hailed as the only democratic success of the Arab Spring because it toppled long-serving autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in a 2011 revolution without triggering major violence.

Since its revolution, enthusiasm for democratic change has long given way to anger over consistently low living standards.

The Tunisian elections authority put the turnout at 33.7 percent, with many commentators noting the figure was low compared with parliamentary and presidential elections in 2014, when the turnouts were 69 and 65 percent respectively.

But Youssef Cherif, a Tunis-based political analyst, pointed out that it is common for local elections to draw less interest. He said that public disenchantment with Tunisia’s politics and a lack of coverage of the polls in local media contributed to the turnout.

"I actually find the turnout better than expected. Low for a first and historic election, normal for a local election, impressive when taken in the context of the ongoing economic and political crises that shook Tunisia's political life since 2014,” he told Middle East Eye.

Complex broadcasting regulations that stipulated all candidates must receive equal national airtime had led most Tunisian media to ignore coverage of the elections, he said.

He said voters had stayed away because of public disenchantment with political life, linked to the economic crisis and ongoing political struggles inside government and political parties.

Few reports of fraud

Tunisia’s elections commission postponed the vote in eight centres in Mdhila, a town in the interior of the country, because of a mistake with the election papers. Clashes were reported in several other areas but no large-scale disturbances.

Some political parties also spoke of violations in several towns, including parties trying to influence voters and distribute money.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, the leader of Nidaa Tounes, said his party had received reports of “serious violations”.

“Nidaa Tounes has observed... a number of serious violations documented in different parts of the republic, and which directly affect the credibility and legitimacy of the electoral process,” he said in a statement posted to Facebook.

Essebsi also questioned the “suspicious silence of the electoral commission” regarding the claims.

'I actually find the turnout better than expected... impressive when taken in context'

- Youssef Cherif, political analyst

But Cherif told MEE that it was “not a full claim... but rather a warning of possible fraud. Then they accepted the results and endorsed them.”

Adel Brinsi, a member of the Independent Electoral Commission, said some abuses occurred at polling stations but they were not significant and did not affect the running of the election nor the results.

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."