Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party claimed victory late on Sunday in the country’s first free municipal elections, a key step in a democratic transition marred by economic disappointment.
After polling stations closed at 6 p.m., 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.
Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes are also coalition partners in the national government. They were expected to dominate the long-delayed polls, which will see officials elected in 350 municipalities for the first time since a 2011 uprising ended decades of authoritarian rule.
This result is a reward for the new tolerant and democratic Ennahda ... Ennahda which searched for consensus.
“This result is a reward for the new tolerant and democratic Ennahda … Ennahda which searched for consensus,” Zitoun said.
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.”.
“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, though it remains unclear how it will work in practice.
Western donors want to provide funds for councils to start projects from day one.
This 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.