Eight presidential candidates stood behind their podiums aiming to impress Tunisian voters on Saturday evening in the young democracy’s first ever televised election debate. Although Tunisia has held elections twice since the 2011 revolution which triggered the “Arab Spring” uprisings, democracy is still taking root and such direct questioning of all the candidates is a novelty.
Only a few patrons of the Essafsaf Cafe in Tunis were watching the large screen in the corner, however, hoping to whittle down their voting preferences ahead of the September 15 election.
“I have a list of favourites and I have a few who are not favourites. I hope to learn how they react to questions, how they face questions they do not know in advance,” said Mohamed Mazhoud, 31, a software developer.
He had come to the cafe with his brother Ali, 25, and three friends, planning to listen to each of the candidates scheduled for the first night of debate, with most of the other 18 appearing on Sunday or Monday.
Saturday’s batch included Abdelfattah Mourou, who is the first presidential candidate put forward by the moderate Ennahda party, former prime minister Mehdi Jomaa and former president Moncef Marzouki. Mourou was placed next to Abir Moussi, one of
two women in the race and a supporter of the ousted ruler Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, whose government banned Ennahda and jailed many of its members.
Another very prominent candidate, media magnate Nabil Karoui, is in detention on suspicion of tax fraud and money laundering, charges he denies and attributes to political chicanery. Debate organisers have said they will keep an empty podium place on the night he was scheduled to appear.
The furore surrounding his detention is not the only challenge facing Tunisian democracy during this election — years of economic troubles have also undermined trust in politics and turnout for municipal voting last year barely reached 30 per cent. The government has spent the past three years trying to push through tough spending cuts to curb the large level of public debt and to bolster security after militant attacks in 2015 that devastated the crucial tourism sector.
Unemployment, at 12 per cent before the revolution, now stands at 15 per cent nationally and more than 30 per cent in some cities.
Around Tunis on Saturday evening, most cafe televisions seemed set to a football match between France and Albania, though politically engaged people may have chosen to watch at home where they could better hear the candidates.
Outside the Cafe Les Palmiers, groups of men sat playing cards or smoking. At one table of four, Rida Ben Salem, 53, said he had lost any belief that the elections would change his difficult lot in life. — Reuters
Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall