Tunisia’s electoral commission on Monday indefinitely postponed the first municipal elections since a 2011 uprising that toppled long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in a blow to the fledgling democracy.
The commission announced the postponement after a meeting between party heads and representatives of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, President Beji Caid.
“The majority of participants in the meeting were in favour of postponing the municipal elections,” said interim commission head Anouar Ben Hassen.
The parties would meet again within 10 days in another bid to set a date, he said.
The long-delayed poll had been seen as the final stage in Tunisia’s transition to democracy following its uprising which sparked the Arab Spring revolutions.
The commission had been expected to announce a new date for the polls — likely March 2018 — after several earlier delays.
But following four hours of talks, the parties were unable to agree a date.
Rached Ghannouchi, head of Islamist party Ennahdha, which shares power with Essebsi and Chahed’s Nidaa Tounes, said the decision sent “a negative message to the world”.
The head of the Democratic Alliance party, Mohamed Hamdi, said his party was “not ready for the date of December 17 but we are against any postponement”.
Mehdi Ben Gharbia, a minister responsible for relations with constitutional bodies and civil society, agreed.
“Deferring municipal elections is a bad thing, whatever the objective reasons, but ending this meeting without fixing a new date is even worse,” he said.
The decision came after a major cabinet reshuffle that saw Ben Ali-era officials return to key posts in a move seen as strengthening Essebsi’s grip on the executive.
The poll would have seen thousands of officials elected to replace “special delegations” — provisional bodies set up in the aftermath of the uprising.
Tunisians have been counting on the election of local officials to improve living standards by upgrading infrastructure and tackling everyday issues such as sewage and garbage collection.
The focus was on turnout, especially in regions of central Tunisia with high unemployment and poverty levels that stoked the revolution.
But in a sign of scepticism, especially among Tunisia’s youth, the electoral commission, known as ISIE, said it had registered just 500,000 of the three million people eligible to vote.
The poll had originally been set for December, in consultation with the government, political parties and civil society groups, electoral chief Chafik Sarsar said in April.
But a month later Sarsar announced his resignation, saying he was unable to “work independently and impartially”.
His deputy and another member of the commission also quit.
Tunisia has been praised for a relatively democratic transition over the past six years, during which a new constitution was adopted and legislative and presidential polls held in 2014.
But fears for the revolution’s gains have grown, especially since after Borhane Bsaies, a Ben Ali-era official and advisor to Nidaa Tounes, said the party favoured a referendum to change Tunisia’s political system.
Zied Lakhdhar, a leftist lawmaker, said some in Tunisia were “preparing for a revision of the constitution and calling for a referendum to change the political regime of the country”.
Francophone daily La Presse echoed his fears.
“All the work achieved so far by the ICIE will have been for nothing because whatever the new date… everything will have to be redone, starting with a new registration process,” it said Monday.