The questions and answers were mostly mundane, occasionally verging on the boring, yet Tunisians were glued to their TV screens at home and in cafes for three days in a row this week to watch the first televised debates between 23 of the 26 candidates running in the country’s presidential elections on 15 September.
Millions watched as the candidates, including a former prime minister, defence minister, former head of state and celebrity politician from the country’s main Islamist party Ennahda stood patiently on their podiums for an hour and a half to answer questions from two seated TV presenters who had earlier given them only 90 seconds each to make their cases.
“The debates generated massive interest, and even holding them is seen as an accomplishment,” said Fadli Aliriza, editor of Tunisian news Website Meshkal. “They were forced to speak to the people one way or the other… It is a sign, as some see it, that Tunisian democracy has developed.”
Called “The Road to Carthage: Tunisia Makes its Choice,” the debates were broadcast on 11 TV channels, two of them public, and about 20 radio stations around the country. The questions focused on presidential policies on foreign affairs and national security, public freedoms, and the president’s first 100 days.
One of the frontrunners, TV magnate Nabil Karoui, was absent from the debates because of his arrest in August on charges of evading taxes and money-laundering, but he remains legally qualified to run for the country’s top political job.
Karoui has denied the charges and his party has maintained that the arrest was politically motivated to keep him out of the presidential race. Observers say his chances of making it to the second round are not farfetched.
This is the second set of presidential elections in Tunisia since the 2011 popular uprising that toppled the country’s autocrat for 30 years, former president Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali and triggered the Arab Spring revolutions. Despite the political turbulence that has ensued since, including the assassination of two secularist figures, Tunisia’s political class has eventually bowed to political compromise to address the secularist-Islamist polarisation in the country and save their new democracy.
In the first presidential elections of 2014, the competition was limited to secularist former Ben Ali official Beji Caid Essebsi, who was supported by the secularist camp, and the socialist Moncef Marzouki, who was supported by the Islamist-oriented Ennahda Party.
Essebsi beat Marzouki with 55.68 per cent of the vote against 44.32 per cent in the second round. However, his subsequent death at the age of 92 last July meant that the presidential elections that were scheduled for November had to be brought forward to comply with the Tunisian Constitution, which limits any vacancy of the president’s office to 90 days.
In this year’s elections, Tunisian voters will be faced with more choices than they had last time, a reflection, observers say, of how priorities have shifted and have surpassed ideological polarisation to a degree where the new political environment is attracting more diversity.
There are two women, seven businessmen, three academics, one trade unionist, three medical doctors, four engineers, four lawyers, a former premier, a former president, a parliamentarian, two TV moguls and eight former and incumbent cabinet ministers running in the elections.
In addition to the incarcerated Karoui, 56, other prominent candidates include lawyer and Deputy Speaker of Parliament Abdel-Fattah Morou, 71, of the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, Defence Minister Abdel-Krim Zbidi, 69 and former prime minister Youssef Chahid, 43, who resigned to contest the elections.
The candidates are viewed as representatives of the country’s four main political currents – the liberal Chahed and Zbidi for the secularists, the populist Karoui, and Mongi Rahoui, Hamma Hammami and Abid Briki representing the divided left – in the view of Egyptian political analyst Ibrahim Awad.
The Islamist current is represented by Ennahda’s Morou, who considers his party that of “Muslim democrats” and is popular with secularists.
None of the candidates is expected to win a majority in next Sunday’s first round, and a second round is expected in October, but no date has been set.
Since the divided left may not make it to the run-offs, Awad predicts that the second round will see one of the two liberals, Chahed or Zbidi, against either Karoui or Morou. In either scenario, the liberal will have the better chance, Awad wrote in a column published in the Egyptian Al-Shorouk newspaper this week.
If Chahed runs against Karoui, Ennahda, which has supported Chahed as premier, will back the former. If Chahed or Zbeidi face Morou, the secularists will also support the former.
“The real problem will be if it is Morou versus Karoui,” Awad said.
Ennahda’s executive committee, argued Awad, knows that Tunisian voters “are not yet ready for an Islamist president, at least for now,” he said.
The party’s decision to run a candidate in the presidential race came after a deeply divided internal debate as Ennahda’s eyes are essentially on the parliament. By choosing Morou, some observers have argued, it is possible that Ennahda’s Secretary-General Rachid Ghannouchi may be sacrificing his own vice-president.
The legislative elections will be held as scheduled on 6 October. This means that the expected run-offs for the presidential race will be held after the general elections, which could affect voters’ choices in the second round.
“This order will be important because the voters may not want a president from the same party that wins a parliamentary majority,” said Aliriza, the editor of Meshkal.
But for the moment Tunisia is enthralled by the debates, which are unprecedented in the Arab world for their organisation and inclusiveness and for allowing equal opportunities for all the candidates.
“The debates have gained the attention of many Tunisians who have felt so far that the elections were not important,” said Youssef Cherif, a Tunisia-based political analyst.
“Because most of the candidates have not had a lot of presence on the ground, the debates have given them a platform to contact directly with the electorate. Against all the odds, the voters now have an idea of who not to vote for, or who to follow more closely,” he added.
In 2012, a private Egyptian TV station broadcast a live debate between two of the leading candidates in the first presidential elections after the 2011 Revolution, which unseated former president Hosni Mubarak.
The programme did not pursue the debate with other candidates, and although Egypt has held two presidential elections since (in 2014 and 2018) the concept of televised debates between the candidates has not been repeated.
Mauritania was the first Arab country to broadcast a televised debate in 2007 between the two candidates running for president ahead of the second round.
“It’s difficult to overstate just how much this means for Tunisia’s democracy,” said Belabbes Benkredda, the founder of the Munathara Initiative that organised the debates.
“We’ve unified an extremely diverse media landscape, creating a single reality for Tunisia’s voters. There is no way back: citizens here will now expect candidate debates in future elections, and rightly so,” he wrote on his Twitter account.
Benkredda said the debates had been broadcast live on Algerian, Libyan, Iraqi and other regional channels. “It’s difficult to overstate what this means for other Arab countries, as citizens of the Arab world took note. Reuters and AFP carried a clean feed across the globe, and the world took note,” he added.
According to Cherif, the Tunisia-based analyst, people are also changing their minds because of the debates. “These elections show that democracy works, that people are actually interested in politics, and that everyone is eager to participate when they have a chance to and when innovative ways are deployed to attract them,” he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly