Tunisia votes in first free municipal elections

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Tunisians head to the polls on Sunday for the first free municipal elections since the 2011 revolution, seen as another milestone on the road to democracy in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

Yet while the North African country has been lauded for its transition from decades of dictatorship, interest in the poll remains muted as struggles with corruption and poverty continue.

Tunisians have voted in parliamentary and presidential elections since the fall of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but municipal polls have been delayed four times due to logistic, administrative and political deadlocks.

“This Sunday will not be like other days. For the first time the Tunisian people are called to participate in municipal elections, something that seems simple but it is very important,” Tunisian President Caid Essebsi said on Saturday.

He has called for a “massive turnout”, but observers expect a low attendance.

Seven years after the ouster of Ben Ali sparked hope across the country, Tunisians say they are now disillusioned with rising inflation, persistent unemployment and corruption.

The country was hit by a wave of protest at the start of the year over a new austerity budget introduced by the government.

“These municipal elections won’t change anything for us. We will always be on the same cart without wheels or a horse,” 34-year-old Hilma, a housewife, told AFP.

French-language daily La Presse wrote that voters are “battered, bitter and disillusioned… due to the blatant and heavily felt absence of economic and social reforms”.

The municipal elections, enshrined in the new constitution and one of the demands of the revolution, mark the first tangible step of decentralisation since the end of Ben Ali’s rule.

Experts predict Tunisia’s two political heavyweights — the Islamist Ennahda movement and the secular Nidaa Tounes party — will come out on top in nearly every district.

But there remains some hopes that the polls, the first in four years, will see a new generation elected into office.

More than 57,000 candidates, half of them women and young people, are running for office in Tunisia’s 350 municipalities.

Some 60,000 police and military personnel have been mobilised for the polls, while Tunisia remains under a state of emergency, imposed in 2015 after a string of deadly jihadist attacks.

Voting runs from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm local time (0700 – 1700 GMT) and results are expected in the coming days.

The municipal polls will be followed by legislative and presidential votes in 2019.

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Top parties seek to protect monopoly as Lebanon votes

 

Lebanese voters went to the polls to elect their parliament for the first time in nine years Sunday, with ruling parties expected to preserve a fragile power-sharing arrangement despite regional tensions.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah movement and its allies could stand to reinforce their clout on the political game in Lebanon, a small country clamped between war-torn Syria and Israel.

The campaign passed without major incidents but security forces were out en masse across a country still sporadically rocked by attacks and with a history of political assassinations.

Queues of voters started forming outside some polling stations in Lebanon’s main cities even before they opened at 7:00 am (0400 GMT).

“It’s the first time I vote,” 60-year-old Therese told AFP outside a voting centre in central Beirut.

“I’ve come to support civil society because there’s nobody else I like in this country, but I doubt they will win,” she said.

In the southern city of Tyre, 28-year-old Jalal Naanou was also up early to support an unprecedented effort by civil society candidates to bring new faces to parliament.

“We came to vote and work for change, to see new lawmakers in parliament, because without it our situation will stay the same or get worse,” he said.

Turnout will be crucial to a new civil society movement’s chances of clinching a handful of seats but analysts predict the traditional sectarian-based parties will maintain their hegemony.

“Will Hezbollah be the biggest winner? At the very least, it won’t be a loser,” said Imad Salamey, a political science professor at Beirut’s Lebanese American University.

Candidates mostly avoided the polarising issue of disarming Hezbollah, the only faction not to have laid down its weapons after the 1975-1990 civil war.

The Shiite movement may only gain a handful of seats but it will benefit from the predicted absence of a united bloc against it, Salamey said, and could play the role of kingmaker in parliament.

The triumvirate heading the state is unlikely to change, with parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, the octogenarian leader of the rival yet often allied Shiite party Amal, almost certain to keep the post he has held since 1992.

- Civil society list -

President Michel Aoun’s position is not up for renewal but his Christian party is a key player in the vote, for which a reformed, more proportional electoral law is in force.

The new lawmakers will play a vital role in appointing the next prime minister, with many expecting incumbent Saad Hariri to serve another term.

Hariri has historically been supported by Sunni regional kingpin Saudi Arabia while Hezbollah is backed by Shiite Iran, but both seem ready to continue sharing power.

The diagram of alliances across Lebanon’s gerrymandered constituency map is an almost comical spaghetti jumble of local deals between parties working together in one district and competing in the next.

That has fuelled already deep disillusionment in a country where the same dynasties have held political power for decades and are widely seen as self-serving and corrupt.

The force that embodies change is an alliance called “Kulluna Watani” which federates civil society groups, including a movement born of 2015 protests over a waste management crisis.

The most optimistic forecasts see them winning five seats, out of parliament’s 128, but its leaders privately say even just one would be an achievement.

Among the list’s candidates with the best chances is Paula Yacoubian, a prominent TV journalist who is one of a record 86 women to run.

“We have a very corrupt cast and there is a movement of brave people trying to tell them: ‘We are not happy’,” she told AFP.

The complex new voting law passed in 2017 has allowed smaller parties to run but the challenge of rousing lethargic voters is huge.

The country has gone through institutional crises that left it without a president for two years and without a budget for 12 — but many Lebanese argue they could hardly tell the difference.

There were few signs during the campaign that voters would mobilise much more than usual, with one pollster predicting a one point rise from the 2009 turnout rate of 55 percent.

Polling stations are expected to close at 7:00 pm (1600 GMT) and results for all 15 districts could be announced as early as Monday.

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Israel drops bid for UN security council seat

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ISRAEL dropped out Friday of a race for a Security Council seat in 2019 and 2020 following a campaign by Arab states at the United Nations to block the bid.

The decision cleared the path for Belgium and Germany to take the two seats allocated on a regional basis when the General Assembly holds the elections next month.

“After consulting with our partners, including our good friends, the state of Israel has decided to postpone its candidacy for a seat on the Security Council,” said a statement from the Israeli mission.

It was Israel’s first attempt to win a seat at the 15-member council. No reason was given for the withdrawal, but diplomats said it had appeared clear in recent weeks that Israel would lose to Germany and Belgium in the General Assembly vote on June 8.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki last month said Arab countries were “doing everything possible to convince as many countries as possible to block the vote on Israel’s bid for a seat on the Security Council”.

Speaking on the sidelines of an Arab summit in Riyadh, Maliki said he was confident that Arab and Muslim states would muster enough votes to block Israel’s candidacy.

South Africa and the Dominican Republic are set to win two of the five seats up for election.

Indonesia and the Maldives will be competing for one seat representing the Asia-Pacific group of countries.

The Security Council is made up of five permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — while the 10 other seats are filled by elected members that serve two-year stints.

“We will continue to act with our allies to allow for Israel to realise its right for full participation and inclusion in decision-making processes at the UN,” the Israeli mission said.

“This includes the Security Council as well as an emphasis on areas related to development and innovation.”

Even if a country is put forward as the region’s candidate for a seat, it still needs to secure more than two thirds of the overall vote in the 193-nation assembly.

That would have made it difficult for Israel to secure enough votes at the assembly. AFP

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