Paris 15 January 2011. Crédit photo Kerim Bouzouita

The 8838 registred to vote in December’s elections is low considering that Tunisian immigrants constitute 12% of the total population and represent one of the country’s major sources of foreign currency and economic development, according to the Office of Tunisians Abroad (OTE, 2015). In the hours before voter registration results were released on Friday August 11, the FTCR in collaboration with the Association création et créativité pour le développement et l’embauche (CCDE), the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the General Work Confederation (CGT) and the OTE launched the « Tunisians Abroad and Local Elections » forum in Bizerte. It was the first in a series of debates which will take place in Zarzis, Msaken, Ghardimaou and Ben Arous. Addressing a rather small turnout of Tunisians visiting from abroad, FTCR president Tarek Ben Hiba introduced the speakers panel: Bassem Karray, professor in public law, Abderrazek Ben Khalifa, former Secretary of State for Local Districts and Regional Administration, Fayçal Kazez, department head at the Ministry of Local Affairs, and Mouaoui Kaabi, financial consultant.

The disadvantage of dual citizenship

Ben Hiba, who lives between Paris and Tunis, recalls the « important victories » that the FTCR and other non-governmental associa tions have achieved for Tunisian immigrants since 2011, notably the right to vote and run in presidential and legislative elections. As a sidenote, he mentions that this victory is not absolute since « we are to promise that we will renounce our second nationality ». But the caveat is secondary to the groundwork laid, and Ben Hiba continues:

Now we are setting to work on the question of local democracy. Some say, ‘this doesn’t concern you because you don’t live here full time.’ I find this to be false and dangerous: you’re either Tunisian, or you’re not. And if you are, then you have the right to vote.

Whereas Tunisians living abroad can cast their votes from abroad for presidential and legislative elections (significantly, this process was not fully realized in the 2014 legislatives) participation in municipal elections requires them to be in Tunisia for registration and voting. Ben Hiba flashes his proof of voter registration, explaining that Tunisian immigrants must be physically present in the district associated with the address on their national identity card.

Representation, from the local to the State level

« There is no way to vote abroad for the simple reason that there are 350 districts » and no option for online voting or ballot by mail. Indeed, the introduction of alternative voting methods is among electoral law reforms that the FTCR proposes. It’s all about representation. The FTCR and other associations that advocate for the rights of Tunisian immigrants were demanding representation long before the revolution. Under Ben Ali, promises to set up an independent immigration council were never realized, and it wasn’t until 2011 that the idea resurfaced with the creation of a Secretary of State for Immigration, a position occupied by Houcine Jaziri. But the new position is regarded as hardly effective and at the mercy of political rivalries. Radhouane Ayara is the current Secretary of State for Immigration affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, « whereas the means, the budget, the civil servants are affiliated with the OTE under the Ministry of Social Affairs », sighs Ben Hiba. « We have to cure this schizophrenia », he says, adding that the best solution is the creation of an independent ministry that presides over immigration issues.

The same concerns, in Tunisia and abroad

But even before electoral law reform, the more pressing legislative matter is the adoption of a new local districts law to replace the old Code des collectivités locales dating from 1975. In the months leading up to municipal elections, many are concerned about lack of progress towards the adoption of legislation that is determinant in how newly elected local government officials will run their districts. Bassem Karray, professor of public law who participated in writing the current draft law (there have been 17 different versions), is a speaker in the « Tunisians abroad and local elections » forum. During the debate in Bizerte, Karray wondered whether or not a new code can possibly be adopted in time for elections. Parliamentary deputies on break for the summer are to resume their duties around September 11, leaving little time to revise the draft before electoral campaigns begin on November 25. Karray indicated that the text is long (360 articles), technical, and ambiguous, making it a tedious read.

The concern shared by many is that the deadlines in place for the 2017 electoral process will push deputies towards hasty consensus and the adoption of a poorly-drafted law. Karray proposes that dates be moved back to allow time for real debate and fine-tuning of the text. Another concern, in the case that the draft law is not passed, is that the old Code des collectivités locales will remain in effect, and this, according to Ben Hiba, is simply « unacceptable; If they [deputies] aren’t ready, we’ll wait. The date will have to be postponed. We refuse to vote with the districts code of Ben Ali ». For many, the idea that newly elected local officials might carry out their work according to the old law is counteractive to the decentralization process whereby municipalities would have the autonomy to address the particular needs and issues of each region.

In spite of the growing number of Tunisians living overseas, « immigrants are always forgotten…by the State, by political forces. They are called upon to give their applause, to vote, but they are not considered citizens », Ben Hiba tells us.

If we don’t make a big enough effort, there will be a cut-off between the third and fourth generations—they’re all bi-national. If there is no outreach policy directed to youth, we risk not seeing them any more.

In the countdown to December’s elections, the FTCR and partners will continue the debate, prompting citizens to reexamine the representation, rights, and responsibilities of TRE in Tunisia. The forum continues this Sunday, August 20 in Zarzis.