The impact of electoral quotas on candidate selection strategies in the Tunisian municipal elections 2018

Foto Credit: AFP

The first post-revolution local elections took place in Tunisia on 6 May 2018. The country is known as the only case where the Arab uprisings in 2011 resulted in a successful – and ongoing – process of democratization. The decentralization of governance is commonly viewed as an important part of a democratic development (Grindle 2009). Indeed, the newly created 350 Tunisian municipalities will dispose of considerable independence from the central political authorities, for example in administrative and financial matters. They will prospectively be governed by municipal councils, each with a presiding mayor. Whereas the councils are elected by the people, the mayors will be subsequently elected by the respective municipal councils.

The electoral code, adopted in 2016, introduced a closed-list proportional representation system for local elections, further regulated by a sophisticated system of quotas for different groups. The presence of women in the future local councils shall be guaranteed by a so-called ‘doubled’ parity-quota. Parties have to make sure that 50% of the candidates on their lists are female, in an alternating placement on the lists (‘vertical parity’), and that half of the lists of each party is headed by a woman candidate (‘horizontal parity’). Furthermore, all lists must comply with a youth quota, which requests that one of the first three and then at least every sixth candidate is under 35 years old. Finally, yet importantly, party-lists are only entitled to state reimbursement of their campaign costs if they place a candidate with disabilities among the first 10 spots.

Considering the high importance of local elections for the processes of decentralization and democratization in Tunisia, those quota regulations clearly reflect the new regimes’ ambition to include formerly excluded groups into the new political system. This blog post aims to shed light on how these ambitions have resonated with political parties’ logics of candidate selection. How did the Tunisian parties implement the quotas and to what extent did they lead to more diversity in local politics?

I here argue that the Tunisian parties had to cope with competing logics of acting in those elections. On the one hand, theory tells us that political parties are ‘sticky’ institutions, resistant to change, and will thus try to nominate as many as necessary, but as few as possible (female, young, disabled) newcomers (Krook 2010; Mackay 2014). This may be even more so in a Muslim country where the equal positioning of women in the public space is still a contested issue (Benstead, Jamal, and Lust 2015). On the other hand, the Tunisian party system is still in creation, and there are no incumbents in those first local elections, which may lead to better chances for women and youth candidates to be nominated and elected.

Indeed, the quotas led to impressive shares of both women and young candidates: 52% of all candidates were younger than 35, 49% were women and 30% of all lists were even headed by women (ISIE). However, there were important variances between the parties. Tunisia has a rather fragmented party system, with two big parties who currently form the government – the Islamist Nahdha-party and the secular party Nidâa Tounès – and 10 to 15 smaller, mostly secular parties. Whereas the two big parties achieved to compile lists in all of the municipalities, many of the small parties only filed lists in about one fifth of all municipalities (see figure 1). Furthermore, 40% of lists were ‘independent’, i.e. only ran in one specific municipality.

Figure 1: Number of lists per party.


Most parties reported that they had no difficulties in implementing the youth quota, since youth in Tunisia are often engaged and active in parties and non-governmental organizations. In contrast, many found it difficult to identify enough willing and suitable women candidates, especially if they should run as heads of lists. The horizontal parity quota, which required every second head of list per party to be female, turned out to be the main driver of two distinct candidate recruitment strategies of the smaller and the big parties.

For the small parties, the horizontal parity quota constituted a considerable challenge – in terms of candidate identification, but even more concerning the necessary degree of coordination between the different local lists. Thus, they often resorted to a strategy that builds on the fact that this quota logically only applies to party-lists, and not to independents. If a local list could not agree to put a female on top, it would firm as ‘independent’. Indeed, among the independent lists, only 3% were headed by women.

The big parties, Ennahdha and Nidâa Tounès, profited from their higher degree of organization and centralization, which allowed them to coordinating the candidate selection in all 350 municipalities and to ensure that every second list – 49% in the end – were headed by women candidates. Interestingly, they mainly chose to place women as heads of lists in urban areas, most notably in the big cities of the country (Tunis, Sousse, Sfax), since they expected less skepticism of the voters towards female heads of lists in those municipalities.

Looking at the final election results, independent lists won 32% of the votes, Ennahdha got 28%, and Nidâa Tounès 21%. 47% of the elected council members are women– to my knowledge, this should be among the highest shares of female representation in local politics worldwide (the European average was 27% in 2013; see Sundström 2013). While official statistics on the age distribution in the councils have not been published yet, it is to expect that a good share of them will be under 35 years old. In the coming months, each council will elect a mayor from among the heads of lists of all represented fractions. It will be interesting to see how many female mayors Tunisia will elect. The favourite candidate for this poste in the capital Tunis is Souad Abderrahim, female head of list from Ennahdha, who would be the first woman in this position ever since.

To conclude, the Tunisian quotas did live up to their promise to ensure women and youth’s equal access to the newly created municipal councils. Although the abstention rate, particularly among the young Tunisian voters, was very high (67%), inclusive local politics may help to deepen the Tunisian democratization process and to restore trust in the new political system. However, this will only succeed if parties make an effort to not only increase groups’ share in politics, but also diversify political power and influence.

The results presented in this blog entry rely on extensive fieldwork in Tunisia between 2017 and 2018, and are part of the research project “Money Talks. Gendered electoral financing in democratic and democratizing countries”, funded by the Norwegian Research Council under grant number 250669/F10.

By:  Jana Belschner (University of Bergen) in June 2018



Benstead, Lindsay J., Amaney A. Jamal, and Ellen Lust. 2015. “Is It Gender, Religiosity or Both? A Role Congruity Theory of Candidate Electability in Transitional Tunisia.” Perspectives on Politics 13 (01): 74–94.

Grindle, M.S. 2009. Going Local: Decentralization, Democratization, and the Promise of Good Governance. UPCC Book Collections on Project MUSE. Princeton University Press.

Krook, M. L. 2010. “Beyond Supply and Demand: A Feminist-Institutionalist Theory of Candidate Selection.” Political Research Quarterly 63 (4): 707–20.

Mackay, Fiona. 2014. “Nested Newness, Institutional Innovation, and the Gendered Limits of Change.” Politics & Gender 10 (04): 549–71.

Sundström, Aksel. 2013. “Women’s Local Political Representation within 30 European Countries.” QoG Working Paper Series 2013 (18): 18.




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